New Brunswick

Higgs steers clear of abortion debate during campaign, despite strong personal views

Once vocal in his opposition to abortion and supportive of government limiting the access women have to the procedure, Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs says he has not been allowing those views to affect how he has been dealing with the funding controversy around Fredericton's Clinic 554.

Higgs says his personal views on abortion are not relevant in Clinic 554 funding dispute

Fredericton's Clinic 554 is the only provider of abortions in New Brunswick west of Moncton, but the province refuses to pay for procedures performed there. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Once vocal in his opposition to abortion and supportive of government limiting the access women have to the procedure, Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs says he has not been allowing those views to affect how he has been dealing with the funding controversy around Fredericton's Clinic 554.

"No I am not," he said Friday.

Instead, Higgs has been framing the issue as a legal matter where politicians should not meddle.

"We do not at this time in our Canada Health Act, private clinics are not funded," said Higgs.

Clinic 554 is a Fredericton family medical practice that, in its words, "is committed to sex-positive, gender-celebratory care, anti-racist and feminist practices, and full-scope reproductive care, including abortions."

The clinic has said it's facing closure because the province has refused to cover the cost of any out-of-hospital abortions including those performed in the facility.

The federal government has said the province's refusal is a violation of the Canada Health Act, but Higgs claims the province has a legal opinion stating otherwise.

It's been a persistent issue during the election campaign with Liberal, Green and New Democrat parties calling for abortions at the clinic to be funded by Medicare. Higgs has been resisting and attempting to steer discussion away from abortion itself and toward blander legal questions. 

In a campaign stop in Fredericton last Friday, PC leader Blaine Higgs said his personal views on abortion are not behind his government's refusal to fund the procedures at Clinic 554. (CBC)

"Private clinic support is something we don't do in Canada. There are procedures that are accepted under the Canada Health Act that doctors can perform and ones that can't. I am not, as a politician, going to say, 'OK I'll do that," he said last week.

Higgs position stretches back

Although he has been careful not to bring it up in the election, Higgs has a firm position opposing abortion, and in the past has not been hesitant about expressing it. 

He opposed granting easier access to abortions in 2014 because, in his view, women who have them find living with an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy "inconvenient."

"I would suggest that the unborn child is, indeed, one of the most vulnerable members, if not the most vulnerable member, of our society," said Higgs during a legislature debate in December 2014 on plans by the then-Liberal government of Brian Gallant to ease abortion access in New Brunswick.

"Just how far will we go because other options are inconvenient."

During that debate, and in question period the following day, Higgs pressed Liberal ministers to allow for a free vote by MLAs on whether to end the province's so-called two-doctor rule.   

In an interview with the CBC last week, Blaine Higgs said the Clinic 554 funding dispute is a legal issue around provisions in the Canada Health Act, not about his government restricting access to abortion. (CBC)

At the time, women in New Brunswick were required to have two doctors certify an abortion to be medically necessary, with the further restriction only a specialist could perform the procedure. 

Liberals had campaigned on loosening those rules in the 2014 election and, although they won, Progressive Conservative MLAs opposed to the change, including Higgs, wanted a chance to debate and possibly stop it in a free vote.

"We see that there is much debate about the fact that, because this is a divisive issue, we do not want to talk about it. We do not want our personal views to be considered. We think it is a political ploy if we are allowed to express our personal views," Higgs said on the matter.

"We feel that we cannot have a free vote on issues that are so sensitive because we are not prepared to live by the wishes of the majority of people who cherish life and the majority of people who believe that there are other options." 

Higgs was especially critical of then-Liberal cabinet minister Bill Fraser of Miramichi, who explained how he was deeply opposed to abortion personally, but not opposed to improved access for women.

"I have advocated, and I will continue to advocate, for life. I have attended pro-life rallies for many years," said Fraser, who nevertheless spoke in favour of the change.

"It has been proven time and time again that restricting access to this medical procedure does not reduce the number of women who seek out that option. It only forces them into unsafe environments."

Higgs rejected that reasoning and suggested it was not possible to genuinely oppose abortion and at the same time allow women easier access to procedures.

In 2014, New Brunswick abortion rights advocates were rewarded for years of protest when the province rescinded the two-doctor rule for women to obtain an abortion. Blaine Higgs argued against the change. (David Smith/CP)

"I do not believe that the definition of pro-life is unrestricted and taxpayer-funded abortion," said Higgs. 

"While it may not be convenient, it would seem that the objectives of both pro-life and pro-choice could better be served by assisting young mothers to complete the full term of their pregnancy." 

Despite the issue being aired during the 2014 election, Higgs suggested politicians should be allowed a say on the issue individually with a free vote on whether to end the two-doctor rule. He believed a majority of MLAs, if unshackled, might side with him.

"Let's decide in a democratic fashion. At the end of the day, certainly, there will be members who do not agree with going forward and there will be members who do agree with going forward with this change but we will all be better because of it.   

"We will all go home at night, thinking: I did my part in representing life in this province and in representing my constituents by stating what I believe in and what I believe they believe in. I will not go home at night feeling that there has been another degradation to our society in New Brunswick." 

However, this year, Higgs has said little about his personal views on abortion and instead has chastised other parties for raising the subject, claiming the status of Clinic 554 is a narrow legal issue and not something for politicians to debate.

"What I think is unfortunate is what we see during the campaign trail where politicians are inventing health policy," he said about calls for Medicare to fund abortions performed at the clinic.

"I think the opportunity is working with professionals to ensure our health care needs are met throughout our province and it is not an opportunity for politicians to come up with a solution on the bus because it is opportunistic."

Asked if he would support a free vote among MLAs to fund abortions at Clinic 554, as he had asked for on the question of ending the two-doctor rule, Higgs said it was not an issue he thinks politicians should be involving themselves in.

In an exchange with reporters, Higgs did say if abortion accessibility in New Brunswick is too restrictive he would expect the province's health authorities to identify it as an issue  "and they would recommend a solution to address that."

Informed that Horizon Health, the province's largest authority that runs hospitals in anglophone New Brunswick had done just that last fall, Higgs claimed he was unfamiliar with that widely reported development.

Last October in response to the Clinic 554 impasse, Horizon's board of directors passed a motion calling on the province to fund abortion services "in a quality and safe environment outside of hospitals."

Horizon chairman John McGarry told CBC News the message was clear.

"The goal of this motion is to improve access to any approved services that can safely be provided in the community," said McGarry.

Horizon's motion was reported at the time by all of New Brunswick major news outlets, including CBC, CTV, Global and Brunswick News but on Friday Higgs said he was not aware of the health authority's request.

"I am not familiar with that direct proposal," said Higgs.

Caitlin Grogan is running for the NDP against Blaine Higgs in the riding of Quispamsis. She protested his stance on funding abortions at a PC event in Charlotte County in August. (Twitter)

Caitlin Grogan, an advocate for improved access for abortion services in New Brunswick who is running in the election for the NDP against Higgs in the riding of Quispamsis, accused the PC leader on Twitter last week of "lying through his teeth" about his reasons for not funding abortions at Clinic 554.

Grogan said nothing in the Canada Health Act prevents New Brunswick from paying for an approved procedure at the clinic and she believes Higgs's personal opposition to abortion is behind the deadlock.

"He is violating the Canada Health Act. The [rule] not funding abortions outside of hospitals comes from our medical payments act not from the Canada Health Act," said Grogan who has also posted a video of Higgs speaking to an anti-abortion group.

"I saw the video of him talking at a pro-life rally where he indicates he shares their conviction. I would assume that is his real motivation, unfortunately."