New Brunswick

After fraught history on abortion access, Liberals not budging from shift on clinic

The New Brunswick Liberals appear to have passed the point of no return on abortion policy, committing to medicare funding for the procedure in a clinic that the party once wanted to shut down.

McKenna Liberals fought to shut Morgentaler clinic, restrict abortion access

Clinic 554 closed this week after the Progressive Conservative government did not reverse its stance on refusing to fund abortions at the Fredericton clinic. (CBC)

The New Brunswick Liberals appear to have passed the point of no return on abortion policy, committing to medicare funding for the procedure in a clinic that the party once wanted to shut down.

It's a major shift at odds with the stance taken three decades ago by Frank McKenna, the last Liberal premier to win consecutive majorities. He used a range of laws and regulations to try to choke off access to Fredericton's first private abortion clinic.

"Over time, we learn, and we grow as people and as MLAs," said Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee, whose father was a minister in the McKenna government that tried to stop a private abortion clinic from opening in the first place.

"I feel like it's only normal that views on certain topics can evolve as well over the years when we have new voices joining the table and joining the Liberal Party."

The shift was first articulated just weeks ago when then-leader Kevin Vickers promised a Liberal government would fund abortions at Clinic 554. 

He was accused of trying to halt the loss of votes to the Green Party.

Interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson says he would be surprised if the next leader reverses the party's pro-choice stance. (CBC News)

With Vickers gone, interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson says the statement remains party policy and it will be difficult for a future permanent leader to roll it back.

"I'd be very surprised if we go backwards," Melanson said. "Society changes, society evolves, and people's way of seeing things changes for sure, and it's changing in a way that society today is more and more inclined to respect individual rights."

Even Liberals who would have called themselves pro-life a few years ago support the stance.

"As much as I would love to never see an abortion happen because of my personal view, I understand, more so now, that women do have that right to decide what they want or do not want to have happen to their bodies," said Miramichi Bay-Neguac Liberal MLA Lisa Harris.

"It's still something that I wish never had to happen. It's still deep within me for many different reasons, but at the same time I don't believe that I have the power to force a woman to make the choice that I'd prefer she make." 

Bipartisan consensus

A decade ago, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives had a bipartisan consensus on the clinic and abortion policy overall. Both opposed public funding for the procedure at the clinic and both supported restrictions on access to it in hospitals.

Those restrictions dated back to the McKenna era. In 1989, the then-premier promised to give Dr. Henry Morgentaler "the fight of his life" after he said he would open a clinic in New Brunswick.

Former premier Frank McKenna fought to restrict abortion access, the opposite of where the Liberal party finds itself today. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Despite a Supreme Court of Canada decision decriminalizing the procedure, "We believe that Dr. Morgentaler has no right to come in and establish his own clinics," McKenna said then.

The clinic opened in 1994 and Russ King, the health minister, immediately filed a misconduct complaint against Morgentaler with the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Legislation passed by the Hatfield government allowed a misconduct finding against any doctor performing an abortion outside a hospital. 

But Morgentaler challenged the section in court and had it struck down.

King said last year that Clinic 554, which took the place of the Morgentaler clinic, now has a role to play. 

Dr. Henry Morgentaler successfully challenged legislation passed by the McKenna Liberal government that allowed misconduct findings against any doctor performing an abortion outside a hospital. (Ian Barrett/Canadian Press)

"Times have changed. … If we need it and the public [system] doesn't provide it, I think as long as it comes up to a certain standard, they should be supported."

The McKenna Liberals also amended Regulation 84-20 to restrict medicare coverage of abortions to those performed in hospitals by specialists, and to require two doctors to approve the procedure.

Those restrictions became part of a bipartisan consensus, with subsequent Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments standing by them and resisting Morgentaler's court challenges to win medicare funding for his clinic. 

Gallant bucks trends

Brian Gallant broke the logjam, declaring himself pro-choice when he ran for the Liberal leadership in 2012. Two years later, delegates to a party policy convention passed a resolution in favour of repealing the two-doctor rule. 

Other McKenna-era Liberals said they opposed the policy, but Gallant won the election and made the change.

In the legislature, PC MLA Blaine Higgs pointed out that Gallant was the first premier to suggest the rule was an unconstitutional restriction on access.

"I would say that the last six premiers of New Brunswick did not believe so," Higgs said.

Former premier Brian Gallant declared himself pro-choice while running for the Liberal leadership in 2012. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC News file photo)

Even so, when Higgs became PC leader two years later, he promised not to reverse Gallant's change, and today no one in the political mainstream even talks about it. 

Gallant also extended medicare coverage to the abortion pill Mifegymiso, but like his predecessors would not heed demands that he cover abortions at Clinic 554, the successor to the Morgentaler clinic. 

That position held until the mid-campaign commitment by Vickers. 

Melanson could not say exactly why Liberal arguments against funding the clinic under Gallant have now given way to the party's new position, other than to say "things are moving step by step" and Clinic 554's closure deprives a whole area of the province of its services.

Meanwhile, Higgs continues to insist that the only expansion to abortion access should be within hospitals, and the province is on firm legal ground refusing to fund it at a private clinic. 

"We offer abortions in public facilities, and if there's an access concern we could do that in additional public facilities," he said last month.

McKee says he heard little criticism of the new Liberal stance during the campaign. "It was mostly positive feedback that it's the right thing to do," he said.

And Harris says politicians have to respond to younger New Brunswickers who she says favour more access, not less.

"We can all learn from those coming up behind us. The world is moving fast and it's exciting." 

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