Brian Gallant’s two encounters with two sets of abortion protesters on Saturday show both the dilemma and political opportunity that the issue represents for the young Liberal leader.

Gallant spent part of the day with Justin Trudeau, the federal Liberal leader who has declared he won’t allow anti-abortion candidates to run for his party in next year’s national election.

Gallant has not applied that litmus test provincially, but his promise to review New Brunswick’s abortion restrictions if he becomes premier has introduced a new, unpredictable element to the current provincial campaign.

Abortion rights protesters

Abortion-rights activists were not allowed to bring their signs into a Liberal campaign rally in Fredericton. (Kathleen Pye/Twitter)

On Saturday, abortion opponents showed up at a Gallant-Trudeau event in Moncton.

Later in the today in Fredericton, supporters of abortion rights tried to attend a Liberal election rally with the two leaders. They carried signs saying “Abortion access now,” “My health care is not your convenience,” and “Counting on you, Brian” — a reference to Gallant’s promise of a review.

But Liberal organizers wouldn’t let the activists bring the signs into the rally.

“So I'm allowed in if I'm a supporter, not if I have something to say,” tweeted Kathleen Pye of the group Reproductive Justice New Brunswick. “What kind of Canada is that?”

The impatience with Gallant among abortion-rights activists, and the opposition he has encountered from abortion opponents, is partly a result of his own careful choice of words.

Gallant has declared himself “pro-choice” and has suggested his promised review would almost certainly lead to the repeal of what’s known as the two-doctor rule.

But he has refused to promise an immediate repeal. He says a review is needed to sort out what would happen once the restrictions vanished.

Kathleen Pye and Simone Lebovitch discuss crowdsourcing campaign for the Mortgentaler clinic

Kathleen Pye (left) said the Liberal leader's language on abortion is "wishy-washy." (CBC)

Health regulation 84-20 requires women seeking a hospital abortion to have two doctors certify it as medically necessary. It also requires the procedure to be done only by a specialist, whereas other provinces allow family doctors to perform it.

While the New Brunswick Medical Society has said the rule shouldn’t function any differently than the specialist referral needed for any procedure, 84-20 has taken on totemic importance for activists.

“I think it's a barrier, I'm convinced a review will confirm that and would confirm that, and then we'd have to repeal it,” Gallant said earlier this year.

But he said a review was required first to “make sure we have questions answered on the other facets that could be barriers to access.”

That includes questions about which medical professionals can perform the procedure and how many hospitals offer it, he said.

That qualification is why Pye and others believe Gallant hasn’t gone far enough to win their support in the election.

“Nowhere has he explicitly said or mentioned that he plans to immediately repeal that,” Pye says, “and that's really what has to happen for anything to change in this province. So it just seems really wishy-washy.”

Liberal convention

New Brunswick Liberals voted in April at a policy convention to approve two resolutions that expand abortion rights. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Other women, including those who feel it’s more effective to work within the Liberal party, take Gallant at his word.

“I don't see him being unclear,” says Suzanne Maltais, a party member who helped orchestrate the adoption of two abortion-rights amendments at the Liberal policy convention in April.

“He said he's for women's rights. He knows it's a constitutional obligation we have as a province.”

However clear or ambiguous Gallant has been, his statements have scrambled the political equation for the three leading political parties in the election campaign.

In the two decades since the Liberal McKenna government brought in 84-20, both Progressive Conservative and Liberal premiers supported it. Only the NDP was vocal against it, and given it had only one MLA in the Legislature, and for only part of that time, there was effectively no debate on the regulation at the political level.

There was also less urgency because the private Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton provided women another option. But the clinic closed in July.

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The Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton closed in July after a 20-year battle with provincial government for funding. (CBC)

The closure announcement prompted Gallant to raise the issue in the Legislature. That, along with the subsequent abortion-rights policy resolutions at the Liberal convention, broke the two-decade-old PC-Liberal consensus.

It left David Alward’s Progressive Conservatives as the only party standing by the status quo.

At an anti-abortion rally in May, cabinet minister Jody Carr told the crowd that the province would continue to fulfill its “legal obligation” to fund hospital abortions deemed medical necessary.

But he also made clear to the crowd that keeping the PCs in power was the only way to keep the rules from being loosened further.

“We are the only political party that maintains the current position of the government and of successive governments of New Brunswick,” Carr said.

“This position will not change for the Progressive Conservative party of New Brunswick.”

Meanwhile, Liberals who oppose abortion find themselves in an awkward position.

The only thing Miramichi-area MLA Bill Fraser, now campaigning for re-election, could offer the anti-abortion marchers was a promise that their views were still welcome in the party.

Al Kavanaugh

Al Kavanaugh, a former Liberal MLA for Riverview, said in May he is not comfortable with the party's position on abortion. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

“Our leader is not imposing his personal view on me or anyone in our caucus,” he said.

“He respects my beliefs and the beliefs of our other caucus members, and our leader welcomes people of all beliefs and backgrounds into our New Brunswick Liberal caucus.”

And Al Kavanagh, a former Liberal MLA who also attended the rally, said he would “probably” vote Liberal in September but “I think about it a lot.”

But at the same time some anti-abortion Liberals fret over Gallant’s comments, NDP Leader Dominic Cardy is trying to keep abortion-rights supporters from abandoning his party for Gallant.

Cardy has moved the NDP to the political centre on a range of issues, dismaying some long-time supporters. On abortion, though, he has used fiery language designed to reassure traditional progressive-feminist supporters of the party that he won’t waver.

“This issue doesn't require study,” he told a July abortion-rights march, slamming Gallant’s position.

“This issue requires action, immediate action.”

Cardy said a NDP health minister would repeal 84-20 “on the first day behind his or her desk.”

New Brunswick NDP Leader Dominic Cardy

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy said his party would repeal regulation 84-20 on its first day in power. (CBC)

The difficulty for Cardy is that most voters don’t see the NDP winning power, while Gallant’s Liberals are seen as having a good shot of winning power and being in a position to act on the issue.

“It's a well-known fact, it's a two-party government, the Liberals and the PCs,” says Maltais, the Liberal supporter.

She says the NDP can’t win, so voting for the party because of its abortion stance splits the vote and lets the PCs maintain the status quo.

But activist Kathleen Pye says she remains unconvinced — and until she and other members of Reproductive Justice New Brunswick are persuaded, the group will only endorse the NDP and the Green Party.

“We would love to be able to stand behind the Liberal party too,” she says. “But at this point he hasn't just really said those few words he needs to say to let everyone feel confident he'll do something.”

The ideal political math for Gallant on abortion would be to have some progressive-minded women hold their nose and vote Liberal in the hopes he follows through — while at the same time anti-abortion Liberals remain loyal to the party.

No one can predict yet whether he can make that equation work.

And if it turns out to be a close campaign, it could make abortion a wild card when the votes are counted on Sept. 22.