Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole. Image: Erin O'Toole/Twitter

It was not a surprise to the pro-choice movement that Erin O’Toole won the Conservative leadership race.

Since 2018, anti-choice groups in Canada have almost single-handedly assured the party leadership wins of three men who went on to become provincial premiers — Doug FordJason KenneyScott Moe – and two federal Conservative party leaders — Andrew Scheer and now Erin O’Toole. As a result, O’Toole owes big debts to these groups. 

Still, the mainstream media declared O’Toole’s victory an “upset” and seemed surprised at the strong showing of the two extreme social conservative candidates Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan. But this happened because two anti-choice groups — Campaign Life Coalition and RightNow — simply repeated what they did before: they corralled thousands of new and old members for the Conservative party and instructed them to put Sloan and Lewis at the top of their ballots in the party’s ranked-ballot leadership contest. 

RightNow even predicted a narrow victory for Lewis. Together, the two candidates got 35 per cent of the votes on the first ballot. But when Sloan and Lewis dropped off the first and third ballots respectively, most of their next-ranked votes went to O’Toole, who had courted social conservatives, while Peter MacKay alienated them

O’Toole explicitly asked social conservatives to make him their second or third choice on the ranked ballot. He reassured them that if elected, he would allow free votes on private member bills to restrict abortion, including letting his cabinet vote in favour of them. This means that a majority Conservative government could successfully pass an anti-abortion law. 

Although O’Toole claims to be pro-choice, his voting record and statements are mostly consistent with anti-choice aims. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada designated him as anti-choice in 2016 because he voted in favour of Bill C-225. This bill would have given legal personhood to fetuses as separate victims of crime when a pregnant person is attacked. 

O’Toole says it was a “public safety” bill but that’s a whitewash — the bill was introduced by an anti-choice MP and supported only by anti-choice and religious groups as a vehicle to transfer rights from pregnant people to fetuses. Similar laws in many U.S. states are used primarily against pregnant women for alleged harm to their fetuses. 

During the campaign, O’Toole made the following socially conservative promises to the anti-choice movement and in his platform

  • He would cancel funding for safe abortion abroad. (This funding under the Trudeau government is saving lives). 

  • He would allow health-care workers to abandon patients for personal reasons via the practice of so-called “conscientious objection.” This impacts mostly reproductive health care and medical assistance in dying. (Patients would get no referral and have no legal recourse because objectors would face no consequences for refusing care regardless of harm to patients.)

  • He would not expand the grounds for medical assistance in dying to mature minors and people with mental health conditions. (He also generally opposes the right to medical assistance in dying (MAiD) and has consistently voted against legalizing it. However, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the previous criminal law as a violation of charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person, and the Trudeau government did not go far enough to protect these rights with its Bill C-14.) 

  • He would change eligibility for the Canada Summer Jobs program “by making it clear that religion or religious belief will not be a criterion.” (This would allow applicants to discriminate in hiring students and use the funding to violate human rights. Anti-choice groups would be allowed to apply for government funding.) 

  • He would eliminate the Court Challenges program. (This program gives members of disadvantaged groups financial help to access the courts to secure their charter rights). 

Now that social conservatives have handed O’Toole his victory, they expect payback. Will he deliver? Or, as a piece in The Conservative Woman puts it, is he “a Christian In Name Only, making the right noises to gain CPC leadership?” In other words, will O’Toole backtrack to give himself a better chance of winning a future federal election? 

Some are convinced he must distance himself from his social conservative base to be taken seriously. Oakville MP Pam Damoff called on O’Toole to boot former rival Derek Sloan from caucus to show he wouldn’t condone Sloan’s anti-choice and anti-LGBTIQ comments during the campaign. She declared that O’Toole “has a lot of work ahead of him” if he wants to prove he only pandered to right-wing groups in order to win the leadership. 

Strategist Melissa Caouette said that O’Toole will need to exert “very strict caucus discipline” to stop the Conservative party from being identified with extreme views on “things such as racism, such as abortion, such as very, very far-right social issues.”

Indeed, both O’Toole and the Conservative party are in a real bind — because the party is still ultimately anti-choice. It has the impossible task of keeping its right-wing voting base happy while assuring the majority of Canadians that a Conservative government won’t take away their human rights. 

In last fall’s federal election, party leader Andrew Scheer was unable to gain the trust of voters that his personal views on abortion and LGBTIQ rights would not somehow affect his governing. Peter MacKay famously called it the “stinking albatross” around Scheer’s neck, and media commentary blamed it in part for his defeat

Tellingly, the three provincial party leaders who won their leadership races as a result of anti-choice strategizing either backed off from their assurances to anti-choice groups once elected as premier (Doug Ford and Scott Moe) or promised not to touch the abortion issue, in the case of Jason Kenney, despite a caucus full of anti-choice MLAs brought to victory by the anti-choice Wilberforce Project

None of the three premiers have attempted to pass anti-abortion measures specifically, but a backbencher in Kenney’s Alberta government did introduce a private member’s bill last fall guaranteeing complete immunity to health-care workers who deny care for personal reasons. The bill was voted down in a committee hearing after a huge public outcry. 

However, the Alberta government pretty much stands alone in Canada in terms of having a problem with LGBTIQ rights. O’Toole seems to be generally in favour of LGBTIQ rights with a good voting record (which makes it a bad voting record according to the homophobic and anti-choice group Campaign Life Coalition). However, there are some worrying signs: O’Toole has expressed doubts about banning “conversion therapy” based on unfounded fears it would criminalize private conversations between religious leaders and their flocks, and he would march in Pride parades only if uniformed police are allowed to march. 

Coming back to O’Toole’s claim that he’s “pro-choice,” what does this really mean? If there’s any sincerity to it at all, it likely means he wouldn’t support a major restriction on abortion, such as a criminal law banning abortions after 12 weeks (as advocated by the anti-choice group We Need a Law). But such a position is meaningless in today’s environment, where the prospect of any significant abortion ban making it through Parliament is equivalent to a snowball’s chance in hell. 

The main worry is incremental measures that could compromise the right to abortion over time, starting with these restrictions on anti-choice “wish lists” (here and here):

  • Immunity for “conscientious objectors” to deny health care

  • Parental consent for a minor’s abortion

  • Double homicide or assault charges when a pregnant person is a victim of crime (i.e., two victims)

  • Defunding abortion 

  • Banning sex selection abortion

  • Banning abortion after 24 weeks 

These measures are not “common sense” or benign — they would impose burdens on pregnant people and violate their charter rights. Since Canada currently has no abortion restrictions, any new measure would also provide the anti-choice movement a base from which to limit abortion even further. It would never stop. 

Therefore, for a politician to be truly pro-choice in Canada today, they must take a strong stance against any attempt that could impact abortion rights or access. Erin O’Toole has made it abundantly clear that he will not do so. He is not pro-choice. 

Joyce Arthur is the founder and executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, a national pro-choice group in Canada.

Image: Erin O’Toole/Twitter


Joyce Arthur

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, a national pro-choice group in Canada.