Ontario plans ‘safe access zones’ for abortion clinics

Posted on May, 31 2017 by Action Canada

Source: The Lawyer’s Daily | Tom Venetis

The Ontario government plans to introduce legislation that will create “safe access zones” at abortion clinics.

The government said the zones are meant to ensure the safety and privacy of women who need to use these services and the staff who work in these facilities. The legislation will be introduced during the fall. It will be modelled after similar legislation in place in British Columbia, Newfoundland and Quebec.

“No woman should feel unsafe or intimidated when exercising the fundamental right to make her own health care decisions, and no health care professional should feel unsafe when going to work,” said Emilie Smith, a spokeswoman with the Ministry of the Attorney General. “If passed, [the legislation] would provide for the creation of ‘safe access zones’ to protect the safety and security of patients, staff and visitors at health care facilities that offer women’s reproductive services. These proposed access zones would ensure that women across Ontario have safe access to health care services and that their privacy and dignity are protected when doing so.”

Smith would not say what size the proposed access zones are going to be or what kinds of penalties would be imposed on those who allegedly harass or intimidate women or staff within those safe zones.

“As you may know, British Columbia and Newfoundland have enacted access zone laws. We will take a close look at the access zone laws in these and other jurisdictions as we determine the best approach for Ontario,” added Smith.

“For many years, people seeking reproductive services at clinics across Ontario have been subjected to escalating hostility and aggression — adding tremendous stress to what may be an already difficult time in their lives,” said Catherine Macnab, executive director with Planned Parenthood Ottawa in a statement released shortly after Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced the plan on May 29. “I welcome any government action that could give peace of mind to these folks and the people who care for them.”

Macnab said the government will be holding consultation meetings over the summer with health care, legal and advocacy groups in order to develop the proposed legislation. The key challenge will be finding a balance between the right of people to assemble and protest and protecting women and staff from harassment and intimidation.

“[The government] is going to have a busy summer with these consultations to determine the scope of this legislation,” said Macnab. “What is clear is that the government wants a bill that is going to pass. They realize there is a need to balance between maximizing the protection of access for people to a safe and legal medical procedure and free speech.”

“No woman should be prevented from making a decision about her own health care out of fear for her safety, privacy, or dignity. And no health care professionals should not feel unsafe in and around their workplace. This is an important and complex issue, and we will take time now to carefully consider and develop a legislative proposal that strikes the right balance,” added Smith.

Erin Nelson, a professor at the Faculty of Law and the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, said a balance between the competing interests of protecting women’s safety and freedom of speech can be achieved.

She pointed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal decision in R. v. Spratt 2008 BCCA 340 where the court found that while the province’s Access to Abortion Services Act, which provides for the creation of access zones around abortion clinics, did interfere with freedom of speech, that interference could be justified.

“It did not completely limit freedom of speech, but only limited it within a certain geographical zone and does so for reasons that are important, which is to permit women access to these kinds of services without being harassed and intimidated,” said Nelson. “People who are protesting in front of a clinic are doing to specifically because they want to interfere with women’s access to those services in some fashion, either by intimidating them or preventing them from getting in. People are still allowed to have their views and express their views.”

Joyce Arthur, executive director with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said a safety zone around abortion clinics and health care facilities is important to protect the safety, privacy and dignity of the patients and the staff.

“Protesters are free to protest anywhere else, across the street or down the street or in a public park,” said Arthur. “There is no need for this to be in front of a clinic. The only purpose to do that is to shame and harass women.”

Frederique Chabot, health information officer with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said she hopes the government reaches out to sexual health advocates and experts when it begins the consultation process.

“No one has reached out yet, but we are hoping to see the many people and organizations who over the years have been advocating for safe access zone legislation be included in the next steps to ensure safe access to abortion. We offer frontline services and we speak to people in Canada who are looking to access abortion everyday, we hear firsthand the difficulties people face. Safe access is crucial.”

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca)