ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – As anti-abortion activists step up their tactics around abortion clinics, Newfoundland and Labrador’s minister of justice says he wants to establish protest-free “buffer zones” banning demonstrations around the health-care providers, based on the success of a similar law in British Columbia.
Andrew Parsons says the legislation, slated to be introduced this fall, will strike a balance between the constitutional right to free expression and a person’s ability to access health-care services without “feeling intimidated or harassed.”
“I fully understand the freedom of expression under our charter rights. But the charter also allows for reasonable limitations on those rights,” Parsons said in an interview. “I have no problem with somebody protesting … but it should not infringe on a person’s right to access health services.”
He says the draft legislation will be modelled after British Columbia’s Access to Abortion Services Act, which makes it a crime to protest or interfere with a patient or provider within a 50-metre “bubble zone” surrounding an abortion clinic. The law was upheld by the highest appellate court in the province in 2008 and the top court in the country has declined to hear appeals by protesters convicted under the act.
The director of the Elizabeth Bagshaw Women’s Clinic in Vancouver says the province’s law has all but eliminated protests beyond her clinic’s bubble zone and she would “absolutely” recommend similar laws be adopted throughout the country.
“Sometimes people are afraid there might be protesters,” Jill Doctoroff said. “It just gives them a peace of mind when we tell them they’re not going to encounter anybody, that they come in and access legal medical care without any interruption.”
Doctoroff says the law has been a relief for staff, whose homes are protected from demonstrators within a 160-metre radius.
A 2010 survey conducted by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada found that legal protections “significantly reduced” anti-abortion protests, sometimes stamping them out entirely. According to the survey, around two-thirds of Canada’s 33 abortion clinics experienced some degree of protest activity at the time, while only 27 per cent were covered by the B.C. law or a court-ordered injunction.
Newfoundland’s proposal comes in response to a 25-year-long dispute between one of the province’s two abortion clinics and the protesters who have stood vigil outside since it opened, with both sides hurling accusations of intimidation, harassment and infringement of their charter rights.
Rolanda Ryan, owner of the Athena Health Centre, says the conflict has escalated following a recent move making it nearly impossible for women to enter without confronting ultrasound photos, “Choose Life” placards and a GoPro camera she has reason to believe is being used to photograph people as they come and go.
The registered nurse is concerned the pictures will be made public, potentially endangering her patients.
“It is obviously a risk for people who come from domestic violence situations … women whose families don’t approve of the procedure,” Ryan said. “Not everybody’s in that situation, but it only takes one person.”
Ryan says in the past, the anti-abortion activists have used methods she would consider “crossing the line.”
In 2014, the St. John’s Telegram reported about an incident in which a demonstrator showed up at the hospital where Ryan’s mother was receiving palliative care. Ryan says she briefly left her bedside during a visit, and returned to find someone she recognized holding her mother’s hand.
“I just went there to see her mother because I knew her, and I used to visit her in the hospital,” Bertilla Brake told The Telegram. “I mean, I don’t even know Rolanda.”
Colette Flemming, a sidewalk regular, says she is “very respectful” of the people accessing and operating the clinic during her twice-weekly prayer vigils. She says any given week, the crowd of unaffiliated protesters ranges from two to six people, but can go as high as 12 during the 40 Days for Life campaign.
“People have changed their minds when they’ve seen the pro-life signs,” Flemming said. “I do it because I have a respect for everyone – the moms, the dads, the babies who are sacrificed at the altar of abortion.”
Flemming says the camera, which she admittedly does not know how to use, was purchased by demonstrators three weeks ago to document “unfriendly” altercations on the advice of a police officer.
“The most basic of our rights is the right to life. We also have the right as citizens living in a democracy to assemble and protest something that we do not agree with,” she said. “We would love to challenge it in court … which is probably not going to happen, because we don’t have the funds.”
Anti-abortion icon Linda Gibbons has spent over a decade behind bars fighting a 1994 injunction against picketing Toronto abortion clinics, which was issued after Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s facility was firebombed in the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision striking down the country’s abortion law.
In lieu of a constitutional challenge, Flemming says protesters will mount a letter-writing campaign to members of the provincial government. “We will still continue our message,” she said.
Undeterred and perhaps motivated by the ban, Flemming says if the buffer zone is implemented, she will move her protest to its border.