OTTAWA — One day after Erin O'Toole tried to differentiate himself from his predecessor, who was dogged by questions about abortion during the last federal election, the Conservative leader found himself in the same spot.
O'Toole was under pressure Thursday to clarify a platform promise to protect health professionals' conscience rights — a measure championed by social conservatives who maintain doctors and nurses with moral or religious objections should not have to refer patients for medical services like abortion, assistance in dying or procedures for transgender people.
In a section on human rights, the platform simply states: "We will protect the conscience rights of health-care professionals."
It offers no details, but suggests the measure is needed to prevent doctors who object to assisted dying from quitting the profession or leaving Canada, as some have threatened to do.
The Liberal government has previously said these health professionals’ rights are already protected because nothing in its legislation forces someone to "provide or help to provide" a medically assisted death if it conflicts with their personal beliefs.
In his leadership platform last year, O'Toole courted social conservatives' support by promising explicitly to protect "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."
But he refused Thursday to directly answer whether he thought conscience rights should apply to abortion, and didn't say whether it would be acceptable for a doctor or nurse to refuse to refer a patient elsewhere.
He only repeated his personal stance on abortion rights.
"We can get the balance right, but let me be perfectly clear: As a pro-choice leader of this party, I will make sure that we defend the rights of women to make the choice for themselves with respect to their own health," O'Toole said during a campaign stop in Ottawa.
Without saying his name, O'Toole has been trying to separate himself from his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, whose socially conservative views on abortion and LGBTQ rights contributed to the Conservative loss of the 2019 election.
"The Conservative party has not always been clear about its position on social issues," O'Toole acknowledged in French in a speech Wednesday evening in Quebec, where suspicion of social conservatism runs high.
"I want to be very clear with you. I am pro-choice and I've always been pro-choice."
O'Toole insisted Thursday there's no contradiction between his Quebec speech and the party's platform.
"I have a pro-choice record and that's how I will be. I think it's also possible to show respect for our nurses, our health-care professionals with respect particularly to the expansion of medical assistance in dying."
Social conservatives have been clear they see protection of conscience rights applying to a broad range of medical services.
During a 2019 Ontario court case, services to which various doctors' groups and individual physicians said they would object included abortion, contraception, tubal ligations, vasectomies, infertility treatment, prescription of erectile dysfunction medication and sex reassignment surgery, as well as assisted dying.
The province’s Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that allowing doctors to refuse to provide referrals would stigmatize already vulnerable patients, leave them to navigate the complex health system on their own and restrict their access to medical services.
The Conservative platform promise on conscience rights reflects the circle O'Toole is attempting to square as he tries to broaden his party's appeal without losing the support of social conservatives, who were crucial to his winning leadership bid and who make up a significant chunk of his caucus and his party's base.
It led to familiar attacks from Liberals, who seized Thursday on a video in which former leadership rival turned Ontario Conservative candidate Leslyn Lewis said she supports health-care providers not having to provide referrals for services like abortion.
"Pro-choice doesn't mean the freedom of doctors to choose, it means the freedom of women to choose. Leaders have to be unequivocal on that and once again Erin O'Toole is not," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Victoria.
Conservatives countered by circulating quotes, including from Justice Minister David Lametti during his defence of assisted dying legislation, that they said prove Liberals also believe in protecting conscience rights and are being hypocritical in now attacking O'Toole.
Lametti acknowledged that various pieces of legislation, including assisted dying legislation, include references to protecting conscience rights. But he said in an interview that ensuring no one has to participate in providing a medical service against their conscience is "way different" than supporting their right to refuse to provide effective referrals.
He said Liberals believe doctors who object to a procedure have a "moral obligation" to refer patients to someone else — a policy adhered to by "virtually every college of physicians and surgeons" across the country.
O'Toole's position would mean patients "will have more difficulty getting access to abortion, more difficulty getting access to MAID, they may not be able to be served as an LGBTQ person, for example," Lametti said.
He said the Conservative platform is deliberately less explicit about referrals than O'Toole’s leadership platform.
"They're being opaque and vague for a reason. They're trying to satisfy their social conservative base … without telling the rest of Canadians what they're really up to."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the policy shows "Conservatives are just missing the plot" and health-care providers have a responsibility to ensure women can access abortion services.
O'Toole's platform also promises that a Conservative government "will not support any legislation to regulate abortion."
However, he has been clear that he won't try to stop Conservative MPs from proposing their own private member's bills to restrict abortion and can vote as they please on them. In June, a majority of his caucus supported such a bill to ban sex-selective abortions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2021.
Joan Bryden and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press