Protection zones for facilities that provide or prescribe abortion to women in Ontario should be automatic and not require an onerous application process.
That’s one of the requests made by a group of eight pro-choice organizations on Friday in a letter to Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi. It lays out five core provisions they want to see in the provincial legislation expected to be tabled this fall. The legislation will create ‘bubble zones’ for abortion facilities which anti-choice protesters will not be allowed to enter.
“Safe access to abortion is a fundamental and constitutionally-protected right for all Canadians. While people are free to demonstrate their opposition to this right, their protests should take place a safe distance from where patients are seeking healthcare,” wrote the heads of the eight groups in the letter.
“It is crucial that a meaningful and comprehensive Act be passed quickly. Abortion patients and providers need protection from the harms and abuses that often arise due to the presence of protesters. These harms can include intimidation, shaming, invasion of privacy, physical interference and emotional distress that increases the risk of medical complications during the abortion procedure.”
In March, Naqvi announced the provincial government would table legislation to enact bubble zones after Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson sent a letter asking for the province to take action in light of ongoing aggression and intimidation by anti-choice protesters outside the Morgentaler Clinic in downtown Ottawa.
Watson said the city did not have the jurisdiction to set up bubble zones on its own.
“We’ve seen harassment over the years on Bank Street at the clinic, but it was starting, in many ways, to get worse,” Watson said, standing beside Naqvi at a press conference in March announcing the coming legislation.
Abortion rights groups hailed the move, and Naqvi said he would be working with stakeholders over the summer to get input on how best to balance a woman’s right to choose with the right to free speech.
A variety of national and local groups co-signed the letter to Naqvi: Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, Defend Choice, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, Planned Parenthood Ottawa, Planned Parenthood Toronto, the Peterborough-based Reproductive Justice Committee and the Kitchener-based SHORE Centre.
Advocates call for five key provisions in the legislation: the establishment of a default 150-metre access zone for all facilities that provide abortion; that facilities should be protected without having to apply for a custom-measured zone; that providers should be able to apply for an exemption or a custom-tailored zone if needed; and that the legislation double the fines laid out in the British Columbia Access to Abortion Services Act — which supporters say can be a guide for Ontario’s legislation — for protestors who trespass into the bubble zone.
The groups also want to see bubble zone protection apply to a range of facilities: abortion clinics, hospitals that provide abortions, the offices of health care providers who provide or prescribe abortion, pharmacies that dispense abortion medication, and the residences of health care providers who provide or prescribe abortions, including doctors, nurse-practitioners and midwives.
Ontario recently committed to covering the cost of Mifegymiso, the dual-drug product approved in 2015 by Health Canada for medical abortions. The groups say they expect to see the need for protection expand and that requiring all practitioners and facilities that provide or prescribe abortions to apply independently for bubble zones could be a significant burden.
“Many more health care providers will need protection due to dispensing Mifegymiso … and the expectation is that health care providers across the province will start prescribing abortion medication to their patients, now or in the future,” said the groups.
“The task and cost of applying for an access zone will become onerous to providers such as family physicians and may act as a barrier to abortion access, undermining the intent of Ontario’s cost-coverage policy.”