On Thursday, Dec. 17, Liberal MLA Isabelle Thériault (Caraquet) introduced a motion urging the government to remove existing legislation that blocks doctors in New Brunswick from being paid for performing abortion services outside a hospital setting, and to fund the services provided by Clinic 554.
In response, Premier Blaine Higgs, who believes that women do not have the right to choose to have an abortion, stayed silent but asked four women in his Progressive Conservative caucus, including two rookie MLAs, to speak for the government against Thériault’s motion.
Having only women MLAs speak was a brazen display of government and male power. Trevor Holder (Portland-Simonds) and Jeff Carr (New Maryland-Sunbury), along with Speaker Bill Oliver (Kings Centre) had participated openly in an anti-choice demonstration in Fredericton last year but watched silently as their women MLA colleagues spoke against abortion services at the Premier’s request.
The province’s restrictive legislation was passed three decades ago by a Liberal government specifically to block access to abortion services at the Morgentaler Clinic and now Clinic 554, the only family clinic in the province providing abortion services in addition to many other clinical services including to the LGBTQ2SI+ community. Subsequent governments have refused to remove the restriction.
New Brunswick is the only province in Canada to restrict payment of abortion services. Its legislation contravenes the Canada Health Act because abortion is covered by Medicare.
Thériault’s request, to remove the restriction, was simple, and so was the government’s response: rather than allowing a free vote on the non-binding motion, the Premier whipped the vote of his MLAs and asked four women to speak for the government against it.
First up for the government was Health Minister Dorothy Shephard (Saint John Lancaster) who began by listing all the payments made to Clinic 554 over the years for medical services performed, except, of course, for abortions. Ironically, her information contradicted the Premier’s often-stated position that the government cannot fund Clinic 554 because it is a private clinic.
Minister Shephard then introduced an amendment, striking out Thériault’s resolution and replacing it with the government’s motion: “to task the regional health authorities with determining if abortion services in New Brunswick follow the Canada Health Act … and with prioritizing primary healthcare access for all New Brunswickers, including adequate services to the LGBTQ2SI+ community.” The amended motion ultimately passed the vote.
The next PC woman to speak was rookie MLA Jill Green (Fredericton North) Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. Green said she had considered declining the Premier’s request to speak against the Liberal motion but ultimately decided to comply. Green claimed she is socially progressive and supports a woman’s right to choose. After her speech, however, she voted for the government’s amended motion that upheld the restriction on abortion services.
The third speaker for the government was another rookie MLA, Kathy Bockus (Saint Croix) who listed the available health services for New Brunswickers. “For those needing assistance in deciding on options, both Horizon and Vitalité offer telephone service with advice and direction, and our provincial healthcare line, 811 is able to assist those with questions as well,” Bockus said. The fourth and final speaker for the government was MLA Sherry Wilson (Moncton Southwest), Minister responsible for Women’s Equality.
On the other side of the Legislative Assembly, women and men from both the Liberal Party and Green Party spoke in support of the Liberal motion and Clinic 554. In her speech, Green Party MLA Megan Mitton (Memramcook-Tantramar) thanked the group Reproductive Justice New Brunswick that has worked for years advocating for an end to restrictions on abortion in the province.
The People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB) caucus spoke against the Liberal motion and for the government’s amendment. In the end the vote was 27 for the government amendment (the PC and PANB MLAs) and 20 against (Liberals and Greens).
In response to the defeat of the motion, Reproductive Justice NB spokesperson Jessi Taylor said: “It’s 2020. It’s time to dispose of discriminatory regulations that restrict abortion services to hospital settings and get on with the task of ensuring abortion services are accessible to everyone across the province. We know that clinics are a proven safe and confidential place for people accessing abortion services.”
“Premier Higgs and the entire PC and PANB caucus needs to remember that abortion is not an elective procedure. It is an essential health service. Our health care systems are stressed with COVID and people need to stay out of hospitals and within our home areas as much as possible. Yesterday, the government of New Brunswick could have moved to make abortions accessible in settings outside of hospitals, such as at Clinic 554, but instead chose to play politics with people’s lives,” says Taylor.
Given that the PC government has a majority, the restriction against funding abortion services outside hospital settings will remain at least until autumn 2024, when the next provincial election is scheduled.
It is unlikely that the opposition parties in favour of removing the restriction can do anything about it. The debate on Thériault’s motion happened on Opposition Day, Thursday afternoon in the Legislative Assembly, the only time when opposition parties can propose motions or bills for debate. There is no point now in introducing another motion on the subject and in any case, motions are not binding on the government.
This was the second Opposition Day of the new Legislative Assembly, and already it is clear that Premier Higgs is using that time to demonstrate his government’s supreme power. Last week, he asked Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn to destroy a Liberal motion introduced by MLA Lisa Harris to urge the government to call an inquiry into systematic racism in the justice system and policing.
Minister Dunn did just that, by introducing an amendment to the motion, seconded by the Premier, that removed the inquiry from the motion. Interestingly, Dunn did this after a speech in which she claimed to believe that systematic racism exists, similar to Minister Green this week who voted for an amended motion to keep restrictions on abortion in place, after claiming she was pro-choice.
This situation demonstrates clearly that the movement for “women in politics” is fraught with tensions and contradictions: the goal for progressive movements must not be to get more women into politics but rather to get more women and allies into politics who have progressive politics.
Until that happens, New Brunswickers are stuck – at least for the next four years – with a majority government led by a Premier who boldly flaunts his power and worse, who asks the women in his caucus to be the mouthpieces for his government’s reactionary politics.
After the vote on Thériault’s motion, the next item on the order paper was second reading of the Liberal’s Bill 16, an Act to amend the Elections Act to allow permanent residents to vote. That debate will continue during the first Opposition Day in January 2021, when the Legislature resumes after the holidays.
Susan O’Donnell is a reporter with the NB Media Co-op.
NB: this story was updated soon after publishing to correct an error: the name of the fourth woman who spoke briefly for the government, MLA Sherry Wilson.