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Protesters outside a Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton in June, 2010.

brian atkinson The Globe and Mail

Abortion is the political issue no one in New Brunswick will touch.

A hot-button topic in many jurisdictions, and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit targeting New Brunswick's access policies, it was barely mentioned by politicians campaigning for this week's election.

Other than Prince Edward Island, where the procedure is not performed, abortion-rights advocates say New Brunswick is the province with the most restrictive rules. The provincial government will not pay for an abortion unless women have the written approval of two doctors and the procedure is performed in a hospital by a specialist.

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Henry Morgentaler is suing to force the province to cover the procedure in his private clinic, which he had to fight in court to open. The lawsuit has been dragging on for seven years, and premier-designate David Alward, who swept to power this week with a large Progressive Conservative majority, said the province will continue to contest it.

"That was my position before," he said tersely in an interview a day after the vote. "My position hasn't changed."

It's a familiar line in the sand. The province's approach to abortion access dates to the government of Frank McKenna and has been upheld by the four premiers, both Liberal and Tory, between him and Mr. Alward.

Some call this cross-party support simple evidence of politicians heeding the wishes of a rural and majority Catholic electorate. Another theory is that women's health issues are sidelined because few women are elected. Monday's vote resulted in eight female Members of the Legislative Assembly among 55, a record but still the lowest rate among provinces. Others believe the parties would rather preserve the status quo than score points off each other on the issue.

"My sense is that there's a political consensus among the two main  parties not to reopen the debate, not to spend their political capital," said Donald Wright, an associate professor of political  science at the University of New Brunswick. "No one wants to reopen this debate. No one wants to talk about it. And since it doesn't come up outside the Legislative  Assembly, it doesn't come up inside the Legislative Assembly."

Jula Hughes, an assistant professor of law at the University of New Brunswick, believes change will come only when politicians are forced to act.

"Any improvements in the situation ... will come from a legal process and not a political process," said Prof. Hughes, who has assisted the local Morgentaler clinic with legal work but is not involved with the ongoing lawsuit.

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Mr. Alward defended the province, saying that it is following the law.

"The federal courts have ruled on public access to abortion ... I can tell you that, as a government, we certainly support the laws of the land," the Premier-Designate said.

Critics respond that equal access for all women is required by law.

"There's a lot of women who don't have a doctor, is that equal access?" asked Simone Leibovitch, manager of the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton. "What if their doctor is anti-choice?"

But she had no illusions about changing the mind of Mr. Alward, who attended part of the 10th annual "March for Life" rally at the legislature in the spring.

"They had an anti-choice rally at the legislature," Ms. Leibovitch said. "He was there. By his presence what was he saying? By his presence he's saying that he does not agree with the women's right to choose."

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