OTTAWA -- Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says he can both be pro-choice and fight to protect the rights of health-care professionals who refuse to perform a medical procedure for moral or religious reasons.

Speaking on day five of the election campaign, O’Toole defended both perspectives as reporters asked how he would navigate a doctor or nurse not wanting to perform an abortion based on their beliefs.

“This is not at all a contradiction. I think it’s very important to defend the rights of all Canadians. That’s what I will do. Making sure that women have the right to access abortion services across this country. I am pro-choice, I have a pro-choice record and that’s how I’ll 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,” he said.

The Conservative platform released earlier this week specifically states that if the party forms government, it will protect the conscience rights of health-care professionals.

“The challenges of dealing with COVID-19 have reminded us of the vital importance of health-care professionals -- the last thing Canada can afford to do is drive any of these professionals out of their profession," the document reads. "We will also encourage faith-based and other community organizations to expand their provision of palliative and long-term care."

O’Toole did not directly answer questions about whether the conscience rights policy would stretch beyond medical assistance in dying and apply to abortion services as well.

“Let me repeat again, I’m pro-choice and we will make sure that women have the ability to make decisions with respect to their health care for themselves and make sure abortion services are available from one ocean to the other," he said. “I’ve been crystal clear throughout my political career, I’ll be crystal clear as prime minister, I’m here to defend the rights of all Canadians."

The issue of access to abortion dogged former leader Andrew Scheer during the 2019 federal election. Scheer stated he was personally against abortion, but that a government led by him would not ban the practice. Still, opposition leaders criticized him throughout the campaign for not clearly communicating his position.

Before the House of Commons adjourned for summer recess, O’Toole voted against Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall’s private member's bill that, had it passed, would ban sex-selective abortions. The bill had the support of a majority of Conservatives.

Liberal ministers have previously expressed their belief of the protection of conscience rights for medical professionals as it relates to MAID.

In November, 2020, Justice Minister David Lametti said in the House of Commons that the Liberals’ Bill C-7: An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying) “enshrines freedom of conscience.”

“No medical practitioner is forced to give the procedure in any way, shape or form, and we've protected that. It already was protected, and we further protected it back in 2016 in the legislation,” he said.

The federal law doesn’t include a provision mandating health-care professionals to refer patients to a colleague if they won’t provide a service; individual provinces have rules on that.

There is no federal law on abortion that regulates the service and indicates physicians’ rights or outlines their obligations.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau skirted around a question about whether his criticism of O’Toole’s stance means a Liberal government would move legislation to further enshrine abortion rights so that physicians are required to refer.

“I think it’s very clear that the Conservative Party once again doesn’t understand what pro-choice actually means. Pro-choice isn’t the power for doctors to choose, it’s the power for women to choose,” he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused the Conservatives of missing the mark on this issue.

“We know that the big concern for women particularly is a lack of access to abortion services. And if anyone goes to their health-care provider and needs help and the health-care provider can’t provide that care, they have a responsibility to make sure they find someone that can do it. They have to make sure they get that access,” he said on Thursday.