WINNIPEG — Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says he believes doctors must refer patients seeking services like abortion or medical assistance in dying to another provider if they object to performing these procedures themselves.
O'Toole faced questions Friday about his position on conscience rights for health professionals after a promise to uphold them appeared in his party's election platform.
"They will have to refer, because the rights to access those services exist across the country," he told reporters at a campaign stop in Winnipeg.
"We have to respect conscience rights but allow there to be referrals."
The stance marks a shift from O'Toole's leadership run last year, when he vowed to protect the conscience rights of health professionals who say their beliefs prevent them from performing a service or offering patients a referral.
Social conservatives have advocated that doctors and nurses with moral or religious objections to a particular procedure shouldn't have to refer patients for these services, including abortion, assistance in dying or gender reassignment surgery.
O'Toole courted the party's social conservative base in the leadership contest in a move many believe contributed to his win over rival Peter MacKay.
On the campaign trail earlier this week, O'Toole didn't directly answer whether he thought conscience rights extended to referrals, but said Friday he believes that is something doctors must do, as he sought to blunt a potential wedge issue.
O'Toole accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of trying to divide Canadians with his attack on Conservatives over the issue.
"It’s important for me to state that I’m pro-choice and I have a record very clear as an ally for the LGBTQ community. Because out of the gate in this pandemic election that no one other than Justin Trudeau wanted, every day he’s been trying to divide people, whether it’s on the pandemic itself or whether it’s on misleading people with respect to my record," he said.
The Tory leader also rejected suggestions he reversed his stance on the matter since winning the leadership.
"My position has never changed."
Unveiled in spring 2020, O'Toole's leadership platform pledged to defend “the conscience rights of all health care professionals whose beliefs, religious or otherwise, prevent them from carrying out or referring patients for services that violate their conscience.”
O'Toole made the lane change on Friday at a long-haul truck company warehouse on the outskirts of Winnipeg, where he was joined by prominent Manitoba Conservative MPs Candice Bergen and James Bezan.
Flanked by corrugated steel siding and a dozen mustard-toned semi trucks, O'Toole stressed his plan to incentivize hiring and create one million jobs as he sought to keep the focus on economic recovery.
Social conservative groups and some Tory candidates remained fixated on the revised position, chafing at what they believe to be an encroachment on freedom of conscience.
"O’Toole is wrong and must walk this back," Jack Fonseca, a spokesman for anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition, said in an email.
"Medical practitioners should not lose their constitutional rights just because of their profession," he said, calling the switch "catastrophic" and a "grave infringement."
Leslyn Lewis, a Conservative candidate in southern Ontario, slammed Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett on Thursday for criticizing "independent thought" after Bennett posted a clip of a conversation where Lewis said she would support legislation allowing doctors to refuse referrals for abortion or euthanasia on grounds of conscience.
"This is straight out of the Liberal playbook of divide and demonize," Lewis said in a Twitter post, dubbing Bennett a "radical leftist."
RightNow, a group that opposes abortion, said socially conservative voters expected O'Toole "to stick with his promise of respecting conscience rights for health care professionals," including the referral opt-out.
The Liberal government has previously said health professionals’ rights are already protected because nothing in its legislation, which took effect in March, forces someone to “provide or help to provide” a medically assisted death if it conflicts with their personal beliefs.
Medical practice and other health-care matters typically fall under provincial jurisdiction. The federal government was able to weigh in on medical assistance in dying by amending the Criminal Code — a step O'Toole said Friday he would not take for abortion.
That issue has not seen Criminal Code changes in more than 30 years after the Supreme Court struck down a provision it said violated a woman's right to life, liberty and security of the person in the 1988 case R. v. Morgentaler.
The provision, which passed into law in 1969 under then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, had allowed doctors to perform abortions only in accredited hospitals and if a pregnancy threatened a woman's life or health.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.
— With files from Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press