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Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc takes questions on pathology testing at a news conference in Montreal on May 31, 2009.

Peter Mccabe

Only two months after taking a beating in the Quebec press for his handling of a controversy over botched breast cancer tests, Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc is facing a new round of criticism over proposed new rules for abortion clinics.

The new rules are part of Bill 34, which was adopted by the National Assembly in the spring. The law requires all private medical clinics to follow stringent new guidelines, including the installation of formal operating rooms and sterile gowns for all staff. Critics argue they are not necessary or feasible for small clinics, and that conforming to Bill 34 could make abortion clinics less welcoming environments for women.

An article published in Le Devoir revealed that one private clinic - l'Alternative - plans to stop performing abortions after the new rules come into effect on September 30th The newspaper quoted representatives of other private clinics who fear that, when clinics close, waiting lists will grow and Quebec women will have decreased access to abortions.

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Mr. Bolduc initially defended Bill 34, maintaining that he had no intention of softening the rules. His statements resulted in calls for his resignation from the opposition and criticism from the head of the Quebec College of Physicians, who said the rules were not appropriate for abortion clinics and accused the minister of "compromising the accessibility of these necessary medical interventions."

Within days, Mr. Bolduc did a one-eighty, announcing that he would consider making exceptions that would allow private clinics to keep performing abortions and would seek further advice on the matter from the College of Physicians, which is expected to send him formal recommendations within the week.

Mr. Bolduc's about-face attracted a barrage of criticism from the Quebec press. In fact, his second major misstep on a women's health issue in as many months resulted in a rare moment of consensus among some of the province's most prominent female political commentators from across the political spectrum.

In her report for La Presse, Pascale Breton declared that Mr. Bolduc had "once more" plunged himself into "turmoil." She pointed to Premier Jean Charest's decision to wade into the controversy (by reassuring the public that access to abortions would be maintained) as a clear sign that Mr. Bolduc had "embarrassed himself" yet again.

Voir's Josée Legault quipped that Mr. Bolduc seems to have become "a master of manufacturing crises." La Presse columnist Ariane Krol, a regular commentator on health issues, seconded Ms. Legault's assessment and suggested that this particular crisis was one that "he could easily have avoided."

Ms. Krol was disappointed that Mr. Bolduc, who is a physician, didn't seem to know much about how abortion clinics worked. "When we entrust the health portfolio to a doctor, we expect that he'll have a certain knowledge of the system," she wrote. While acknowledging that he can't be expected to know every little detail about abortion procedures, Ms. Krol suggested that"when he sets quality and safety standards, he should at least know what he's talking about."

Le Devoir's Josée Boileau observed that it was "not the first time the minister of health and his staff have pushed through plans that are incompatible with the reality on the ground." She was not appeased by Mr. Bolduc's assurances that he would find a way to keep clinics up and running, predicting that the minister was likely to come up with another "impossible solution" to this latest predicament.

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Le Soleil editorialist Brigitte Breton was one of the few commentators to point out that the goal behind Bill 34 - to make procedures in private health clinics safer - was a "laudable" one. But she was not pleased with Mr. Bolduc and his staff's failure to consider the particularly "delicate" nature of the abortion issue.

Ms. Breton suggested that the lapse showed that Mr. Bolduc was not keeping close enough watch on potentially controversial bills. "A minister shouldn't have to wait for a crisis to fix weaknesses in a new law," she wrote.

Blogue post of the Week

Weighing in on Steven Fletcher's comments regarding financing for the Bloc Québécois, Manon Cornellier quotes a letter sent by the Conservative minister to Le Devoir (after he refused the paper's request for an interview). In it, he explains that his stance on funding for the Bloc reflects his party's belief that "no party should benefit from a subsidy from taxpayers and that the activity of all parties should be financed primarily by their supporters."

This clarification, Ms. Cornellier assesses, "could calm things down a bit in Quebec, where the Conservatives cannot afford to lose any more ground. But on the other hand, it takes away the minister's anti-separatist argument, which he seems to be trying to use to win support in English Canada."

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