Tories won't push to reignite abortion debate: Harper
Published Thursday, April 21, 2011 10:09PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 4:32AM EDT
The Conservative party is in damage control mode after one of its candidates claimed that the Harper government has blocked funding for a branch of Planned Parenthood because of its position on abortion.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted Thursday that his party will not make a push to reignite the abortion debate as long as he is the head of the Canadian government.
"This is not the priority of the Canadian people, or of this government. The priority is the economy. That's what we're going to focus on," Harper told reporters, when fielding questions on the campaign trail in St. John's.
Harper's remarks came the day after the Liberals released an audiotape to media of a weekend speech by Conservative candidate Brad Trost, in which he told a pro-life group that the International Planned Parenthood Federation had been denied funding because it supported abortion.
Trost addressed the Saskatchewan Pro-Life Association Saturday, when the organization was holding its provincial convention in Humboldt, Sask.
During his speech, Trost thanked anti-abortion activists who signed petitions to take away Planned Parenthood's funding, which he suggested helped cut funding to the organization.
"Let me tell you, I cannot tell you specifically how we used it, but those petitions were very, very useful and they were part of what we used to defund Planned Parenthood, because it has been an absolute disgrace that this organization and several others like it have been receiving one penny of Canadian taxpayers' dollars," Trost said.
Trost said the group is "still trying to get their snout back in the public trough," though he promised that he and his fellow MPs are "going to be on the lookout as they try to get in there."
He did not back off his comments when questioned Thursday.
"Those are my words and I stand by them," Trost told reporters.
Cheryl Dobinson of Planned Parenthood in Toronto said they've been getting calls all day from people concerned if they will still have their funding.
She said Planned Parenthood Toronto's funding is not jeopardized but Canada's funding for the organization's international programs may be.
"The request that had been put in by the International Planned Parenthood Federation over a year ago (to the Canadians International Development agency) has not received a response," she said.
‘Hidden agenda' back
The candidate's claim raised questions about the spectre of a hidden social agenda within the Tory campaign, putting the party on the defensive.
NDP Leader Jack Layton told reporters Thursday that he found the reports about Trost's remarks "worrying" and he said the brewing controversy "certainly gives us concerns about the Conservative approach."
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff charged the Tories would turn the clock back on women's rights.
"Mr. Harper's actions speak louder than his weak denials that he supports women's right to choose," Ignatieff said in a statement.
"After leaving Planned Parenthood's funding in limbo for nearly two years – and with Conservative candidate Brad Trost's admission yesterday – there can be no question of Mr. Harper's true intentions.
Hours earlier, Dimitri Soudas, the chief spokesperson for the Conservative leader, called journalists to the lobby of a Newfoundland hotel to discuss the issue that erupted when Trost's remarks were widely reported.
According to a Canadian Press report on the press briefing that occurred just after midnight, Soudas read notes from a smartphone, reiterating the basic talking points of the "Muskoka Initiative" on maternal health that the Tories developed at last year's G8 summit.
"I gather from media reports one of our members of parliament has stated something to the contrary, but we have clearly laid out what our G8 initiative will focus on. Organizations like International Planned Parenthood or others that are willing to work with our government, we look forward to working with them as well on this important initiative," he said.
Planned Parenthood is still waiting to officially learn whether it will receive funding, a situation that Soudas did not clarify.
"I can't comment on specific applications," Soudas said, adding that the Harper government would work with "organizations like International Planned Parenthood that will focus its energy and efforts on the criteria that we have laid out."
He said that allowing access to abortion was not part of the funding criteria.
Soudas said he did not know where Trost got his information.
"This member of Parliament is a backbencher. The government lays out policies."
The parliamentary website indicates that Trost was first elected as the Conservative MP for the riding of Saskatoon-Humboldt in the 2004 election. He was subsequently re-elected in the following two elections.
Abortion has been a difficult issue for the Conservatives, who were burned during the 2004 election when backbencher Cheryl Gallant compared the practice to the beheading of hostage in Iraq.
When Soudas spoke to reporters early Thursday morning, he reiterated a Conservative intention not to re-open the debate on abortion in Canada.
Harper will be appearing in St. John's on Thursday morning, before flying to a rally in Nova Scotia and heading home to Ottawa by the end of the day.
With files from The Canadian Press