On social issues, O’Toole is on Trudeau’s side–and he just abandoned conscience rights

By Jonathon Van Maren

The Canadian election was only days old when Erin O’Toole publicly abandoned one of his only commitments to social conservatives.

During the leadership race, O’Toole had sought to distinguish himself from liberal Peter Mackay and win the down-ballot votes of Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan by stating that while he is pro-choice, he also believes in conscience rights for doctors. That may not seem like much of a concession, but for organizations like Canadian Physicians for Life, securing conscience rights is fundamental.

O’Toole’s flip-flop (as pro-life political organization Right Now called it an e-mail) was perhaps somewhat predictable. Journalist Justin Ling started the media wailing with a Maclean’s article warning darkly that O’Toole’s commitment to conscience rights meant that doctors could “deny healthcare” to “trans youth.” What “trans healthcare” means, of course, is puberty blockers, castrations, mastectomies, and other sex change surgeries—even for minors, a practice condemned by the U.K.’s High Court and medical institutions in Sweden and Finland.

But O’Toole folded immediately. Andre Picard reported in the Globe and Mail on August 20 that O’Toole retracted his leadership promise almost as soon as he was asked about it:

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 about his position on conscience rights for health professionals after a promise to uphold them appeared in his party’s election platform.

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. Initially O’Toole didn’t directly answer on the campaign trail whether he thought conscience rights extended to referrals, but today says he believes that is something doctors must do.

“Yes, they will have to refer because the rights to access those services exist across the country and this is about striking a reasonable balance,” O’Toole said during a campaign stop in Winnipeg. “As we see medical assistance in dying expanded, there are some concerns for some in our health-care sector and we can balance those concerns off, but not deny services, so that will be our approach.”

In other words, conscience rights are off the table. Multiple court cases have been fought over the right not to participate in “services” that many Canadians consider to be wrong—including the participation of referral (“no, I won’t kill you, but head on right down the hall and ask for Dr. So-and-So”).” It is quite possible that O’Toole, not understanding conscience rights (or conscience, for that matter) wasn’t aware of the implications of this promise. Either way, he had the chance to issue a clarification, but chose not to. In other words, conscience rights are out the window. Vote Erin O’Toole—True Who?

Meanwhile, in case social conservatives are wondering who the Conservatives do want in their coalition, the National Post published an article the same day reporting on Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner’s latest crusade:

Last week, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner sent an open letter to the Health Minister advocating for the legalization of alkyl nitrites (colloquially known as “poppers”). Poppers are a liquid recreational drug commonly used by gay and bisexual men as a sexual aid. They have been functionally banned since 2013, but are nonetheless widely available through a grey market, sometimes by being labelled as a “leather cleaner.”

Rempel Garner’s call for exploring legalization might be surprising to some — because, let’s be honest, championing gay sex aids is not associated with conservative politics. Yet her stance is practical and reflects an emerging, innovative approach to LGBTQ issues by the Conservatives.

When sniffed, poppers create a brief and euphoric headrush. The effect is similar to sniffing permanent markers, but far more intense. Poppers were popular in the 1970s disco scene and in the rave scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, but their main fan base has historically been the gay community — because poppers relax muscles “down there.”

…Rempel Garner’s letter argues that the ban on poppers is rooted in stigmatization of LGBTQ health…Summarizing her stance, Rempel Garner, who is the Conservatives’ Health Critic, adds, “Sexual health is an important pillar of healthcare, and I hope to see action taken on this front.”

Erin O’Toole has also expressed support for legalizing poppers, because this is the sort of thing a self-respecting Conservative leader must now do to compete with Trudeau in his attempt to prove that he is just as socially liberal as Canada’s most socially liberal prime minister. That’s why O’Toole voted against a ban on sex-selective abortion and for the ban on so-called “conversion therapy”—because fundamentally, he’s on Trudeau’s side, but with a slightly better accountant.

Ironically, Erin O’Toole has been hemorrhaging support from the Conservative base for months, but Trudeau’s cocked-up attempt to make mandatory vaccination the ballot issue for this snap election might just be enough to persuade many conservatives who’d decided not to vote O’Toole to reconsider. Many conservatives had no reason to vote for O’Toole until Trudeau decided to give them one right out of the gate, and now Trudeau is flailing around for a better issue to run on—in his arrogance and cynicism, he called an election that he says is the most important since 1945 but hasn’t bothered to release an election platform yet.

In the meantime, social conservatives have some decisions to make. There are many good parliamentarians in the Conservative caucus, but O’Toole is a staunch social liberal who doesn’t even support the fig leaf of conscience rights. We need a new leader, or we need a new party.

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