Jane Philpott is standing by the pledge she made as a Liberal candidate to support access to abortion despite her beliefs, but accuses her former party of playing politics with a deeply personal issue.
The former cabinet minister is now running for re-election as an Independent in her suburban Toronto riding after being kicked out of the Liberal caucus in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin affair. She said there are some areas where she might vote differently from her former party if she returns to Ottawa after the Oct. 21 vote.
But abortion, which she described as a right that is both protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and upheld by the courts, is not one of the issues where she plans to change her approach.
“The commitment that I made as a Liberal not to oppose access to abortion is something that I will maintain a commitment to,” Philpott said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requires all Liberal MPs to vote with his government on matters of reproductive health, and would-be candidates for his party are asked during the nomination process whether that will be a problem.
Philpott, a Mennonite and a family doctor, said her religious belief has no bearing on what she would do as an MP.
“I have personally never been in the circumstance where I have had to make a decision like that,” said Philpott.
“If I were, my sense would be that unless there were extraordinary extenuating circumstances, that it would not be the right choice for me personally to make for myself,” she said, “but that has nothing to do with my obligations as a member of Parliament to uphold the broad rights that are well-documented for Canadians writ large.”
Still, she did not give a definitive answer when asked whether that would extend to the issues of sex-selective abortion, coercing someone into terminating a pregnancy or amending the Criminal Code so that someone accused of harming a pregnant woman could also be charged with harming the fetus.
Backbench Conservative MPs have put forward bills or motions along those lines over the years, but all have been defeated.
“I don’t want to answer a hypothetical question, because I think it really depends on the particular bill that might be before the house,” Philpott said.
She did make clear, however, that she disagrees with how the Liberals are talking about abortion in the run-up to the election campaign.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was on the defensive last week after it emerged that his Quebec lieutenant, MP Alain Rayes, had been telling candidates in the province that backbench MPs would be forbidden from bringing forward any bills or motions on abortion.
That goes against party policy, which created confusion until Scheer, a practising Catholic who has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights in the past, said he would oppose any attempt to reopen the debate as prime minister.
The Liberals were not the ones who brought up the abortion issue but they did jump at the opportunity to spread messages suggesting Scheer would restrict access to it should the Conservatives form the next government.
Philpott said she found that offensive.
“For Liberals in particular to politicize an issue that has to do with the choice that women make about their reproductive rights, I think is highly opportunistic and shows a focus on political expediency rather than truly respecting something that is such a serious and important personal matter for Canadians,” she said.
She also criticized the Liberals for circulating a 2005 speech by Scheer explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage, especially since many Liberal MPs, including some still in the caucus, once held those views.
“I think it’s what makes Canadians so cynical about politicians,” said Philpott, while noting she firmly supports same-sex marriage.
“We should be talking about what good things we are going to do to improve the lives of Canadians, rather than finding ways to amp up divisions amongst Canadians,” she said.
In Markham-Stouffville, Philpott is up against Helena Jaczek (herself a doctor and a former Ontario health minister) for the Liberals, Theodore Antony for the Conservatives and Roy Long for the Green party.
The NDP have yet to nominate their candidate in the riding.
Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press