The Liberals in New Brunswick could face a tough internal debate if they win Monday's election and have to grapple with the question of access to abortion, says a political observer who warns the party could have trouble finding a unified voice on the divisive issue.
Geoff Martin, a political science professor at Mount Allison University, said Liberal Leader Brian Gallant has been ambiguous at best on whether he would repeal a regulation that restricts public funding of abortions in New Brunswick.
Martin says the strategy is not surprising for the front-runner, who is trying to appeal to liberal voters by indicating there may be a change in policy following a review, while not frightening off those who do not want to see access to abortion eased.
But Gallant's position risks causing divisions in party ranks, Martin said.
"I think this is going to be one of their significant challenges in the first six months to a year is stickhandling this issue because there's still a significant body of opinion that's not going to be all that happy," Martin, who ran for the provincial NDP in 2003, said from Sackville, N.B.
"It's an issue that's strong enough that you may see some Liberals bolt from caucus over it if there's a whipped vote."
Some Liberals who oppose abortion have insisted their leader won't impose his beliefs on them, but Gallant has said the party will adopt a policy similar to the federal Liberals' and promote a position "that respects a woman's right to choose."
Gallant has made it clear his party members would be expected to support access to abortion.
"We can't let personal beliefs get in the way," Gallant said when asked about abortion during a televised debate. "A Liberal government will act swiftly to find the barriers and eliminate them."
Stephen Horsman, the Liberal candidate in Fredericton North, said Gallant has been clear on the party's position and that it has not caused any rifts.
"Brian has made it clear that if we are Liberal candidates we are pro-choice," he said. "If we get elected, I'm sure Brian will sit down with everybody and we'll have a discussion and we'll come to a consensus as a party."
Abortion became an unlikely and unwieldy issue in the election when the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton closed in July, shuttering the only private clinic in the province to provide abortion services.
The closure shone a light on New Brunswick's unique abortion laws and renewed a debate that has largely died down in most provinces.
Regulation 84-20 requires that an abortion be done at certain hospitals and only after two doctors have certified that it is medically necessary.
The NDP and the Green party have said they would remove the regulation, while the ruling Progressive Conservatives under Premier David Alward would leave things unchanged.
Gallant has promised to review the Medical Services Payment Act and remove perceived barriers to abortion, a position criticized by abortion rights advocates who say there's no need for more studies.
The commitment prompted an anti-abortion group to distribute postcards bearing graphic abortion imagery alongside a photo of Gallant, claiming that he will clear the way for taxpayer-funded abortion.
Elizabeth Crouchman, president of the provincial Right to Life Association, said she wasn't involved in the postcard campaign but echoed the concern that relaxing the laws around access would lead to more abortions.
"There are some parties which are saying, 'Remove any restrictions,' and that is really saying abortion on demand," she said. "That is what we are resisting."
Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, says voters are more focused on the economy, unemployment and health care.
"I don't think this issue is a deal breaker or deal maker for anybody," he said. "Economy-related issues dominate people's concerns for their voting decisions and abortion is way down the list."
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