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Conscience rights issue continues to dog Alberta election

Alberta premier Alison Redford answers questions during a news conference during a campaign stop in Calgary, Alberta, April 4, 2012.

Todd Korol/ Reuters/Todd Korol/ Reuters

Clause V.B.17 of the 2011 principles and policies document entrenched in the Wildrose Party's constitution continues to cause a stir on the campaign trail.

As a refresher, that clause is a single sentence in the party's health care section that reads: "Wildrose members believe the Government of Alberta should: implement legislation protecting the 'conscience rights' of health-care professionals."

The clause has been interpreted – and by Wildrose's own admission – as meaning a professional could refuse to provide services, such as performing an abortion or handing out birth control pills if they don't believe in it on religious or other grounds. It has also been extended to cover marriage commissioners, who could potentially refuse to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.

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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who is enjoying a surge in the polls putting her party as the frontrunner, wouldn't directly address the issue Wednesday, but she did say she takes her "marching orders" from voters. The courts, she added, would be asked to weigh in on any disputes.

When Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford was asked about the issue Wednesday, she said she was "very frightened" by the notion.

In some cases, the issue is more philosophical than practical. What pharmacy in the province doesn't already have birth control pills in stock waiting to fill prescriptions? What doctor who already works at a specialized abortion clinic would suddenly refuse to perform the procedure?

Ms. Smith chalked up Ms. Redford's fear as a tried and true political strategy of "Eastern Canada and Eastern Canadian critics," which was also used against former Reform Party leader Preston Manning and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Typical," Ms. Smith told reporters in Calgary on Thursday, "It's typical of liberal politicians to demonize a conservative party using fear-mongering. It's typical. I think that Albertans won't fall for it."

Neither Mr. Manning nor Mr. Harper had trouble winning votes in Alberta, she pointed out.

"I just don't think Albertans are going to buy it," Ms. Smith added.

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She urged voters to pore through the party's 132-page platform to "judge for themselves" and issued her own warning: "I expect we're going to see scare-mongering, more allegations, more probably ads depicting us as scary."

Asked once more about her position on conscience rights, Ms. Smith responded: "The rights of patients should come first."

Ms. Redford denied that her reaction was mere fear-mongering.

"No, I'm not," she said, "but I am frightened."

Overnight, Ms. Redford said she paused to reflect on the controversy.

"I thought about the fact that I was absolutely amazed that we were having this conversation in Alberta," she said.

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Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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