Reevely: Ontario to forbid anti-abortion protests near clinics, homes of providers

Posted on October, 5 2017 by Action Canada

Source: Ottawa Citizen | David Reevely

Ontario will ban anti-abortion protests near clinics that provide abortions, near pharmacies that dispense pregnancy-ending pills and near the homes of people who work in any of those places, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced Wednesday.

“They will just have to call the police and the police will take care of the rest,” Naqvi said at a clinic specializing in women’s health in Toronto.

He was moved to act after complaints that regular protests outside The Morgentaler Clinic on Bank Street, Ottawa’s one standalone abortion clinic, had escalated into outright harassment and a woman’s being spit on.

“Patients have a right to access abortion services with their privacy maintained,” Naqvi said.

The law, if the legislature passes it, will create automatic 50-metre “bubble zones” around Ontario’s eight standalone abortion clinics where protests will be forbidden; the government will have the power to shrink the zones or expand them to 150 metres by ministerial order.

A 50-metre zone around Ottawa’s clinic would cover the sidewalks on its block, on both sides of Bank Street, and extend a little past the intersections at each end. A 150-metre bubble would go from Wellington Street in the north to Albert Street in the south.

Other places that offer abortions as part of a broader range of services, including hospitals, individual doctors offices and pharmacies that dispense abortion pills, will be added to the list if they ask, Naqvi said. The homes of people who work in such places will automatically have 150-metre bubble zones around them, and the law will forbid harassing abortion doctors or their staff over their work anywhere in the province.

People who violate the new law, once it’s passed, will risk fines of $5,000 and six months in jail for first offences.

“Women will not be intimidated. Women will not be harassed. Women will not be bullied when trying to gain access to abortion services,” promised Indira Naidoo-Harris, Ontario’s minister for the status of women, sharing the lectern with Naqvi.

Naqvi’s legislation is similar to existing laws in British Columbia (which has had one for 20 years) and Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (which each passed their own versions last year). The B.C. law has been through multiple court challenges and survived them all.

Some Ontario abortion clinics have bubble zones already, laid on by court injunctions against ferocious anti-abortion protests in the early 1990s. They only cover clinics that were open then, though — and Ottawa’s wasn’t. Naqvi’s law will make the zones automatic wherever an abortion clinic happens to be, and wherever abortion providers happen to live.

“I know some people will not agree with our approach, but that cannot and will not diminish our resolve,” he said. “Because I believe that policies like this are more important now than ever. In an increasingly polarized society, it is critical that we protect a woman’s right to choose.”

Indeed, anti-abortion group We Need a Law answered with a complaint that the restrictions Naqvi plans will be unconstitutional. Abortion isn’t a right, researcher Anna Nienhuis said. Governments could restrict it. Unlike free expression, which is a constitutional right.

“I find it ignorant for the attorney general of Ontario to suggest that abortion is a right. He should know better, and he has definitely crossed a line by suggesting that this fabricated right can undermine fundamental freedoms,” she argued.

On the flip side, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, an Ottawa-based pro-choice group descended from the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League that fought for legal abortion in the first place, is thrilled.

“Supporting reproductive rights requires governments to recognize the intersecting barriers individuals face when trying to access health care,” executive director Sandeep Prasad said. “There is ample evidence that anti-choice harassment and intimidation is a huge problem throughout the country and that access-zone legislation works to protect patients, practitioners and their staff.”

The Liberals shouldn’t expect too much trouble getting the legislation through, even in the supercrowded schedule they’ve given themselves in the lead-up to the next election. Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown fired out a supportive statement before Naqvi had even spoken.

“Let me be very clear: I am pro-choice. That includes protecting women exercising their rights from intimidation or harassment,” the statement says.

Brown, who had a sterling anti-abortion voting record as a federal Conservative member of Parliament, accused the Liberals of trying to bait him into talking about social issues instead of “creating good jobs, relief for beleaguered middle-class families, and closing the door on waste and corruption.”

Only Premier Kathleen Wynne wants a divisive argument about abortion, Brown said.

It’s probably a bit of both. No doubt the Liberals would be happy to talk about abortion rights instead of, say, electricity prices. Such things are a much bigger problem for the Tories’ fractious coalition of Bay Street types, libertarians and social conservatives than they are for either the Liberals or New Democrats. But the complaints from Ottawa’s Morgentaler Clinic went on for weeks before Naqvi promised to do anything — his staff initially pooh-poohed the notion that a new law was needed, in fact.

Wednesday, Naqvi seemed on the verge of tears as he told the story of the woman who was spat on as she went to the clinic.

“As soon as I learned, in my own community that a woman was spat on for just simply going to get health-care service,” he began, and then paused. “Action was needed. And we worked as hard as we could to get this legislation here …

“That is our No. 1 job, is to protect people. To protect people’s rights. That’s my No. 1 job as the attorney general, and there’s nothing more important to my colleague and I,” he said, indicating Naidoo-Harris next to him, “to our premier and our government, (than) to protect women’s right to choose.”

And yet Naqvi couldn’t resist a counterpunch to Brown’s line that the Liberals want a divisive abortion debate, when a reporter put it to him.

“Let me be very clear. Ensuring women’s safety is not a divisive issue,” he said. “It may be a divisive issue in the conservative caucus, but you can ask any of these advocates, that unfortunately women are being harassed, are being intimidated, are being threatened, just to exercise their right to access health-care services.”