No-protest zone outside abortion clinics gaining momentum in Canada
Ontario’s Attorney General wants to create protest buffer zones around abortion clinics after a protester was repeatedly arrested for going inside an Ottawa abortion clinic and reports emerged of pro-life demonstrators spitting on the clinic’s patients.
If adopted, the province would add to a wave of similar measures already in place in British Columbia, Quebec, and Newfoundland.
“These zones around abortion clinics will ensure that women across Ontario have safe access to healthcare services, and that their privacy and dignity are protected when doing so,” Ontario’s Attorney General and Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi told reporters Monday.
Naqvi plans to bring forward a bill at the provincial legislature this fall, at the request of the mayor of Ottawa.
“It came to a point that women were really fearful,
According to the owner of one abortion clinic in Newfoundland, that province’s new law, which keeps protesters 50 metres away from the clinic’s doors, is already making a difference.
“It is just so wonderful,” Rolanda Ryan, owner of the abortion clinic inside the Athena Health Centre in St. John’s, told VICE News over the phone Wednesday. “Everyone can breathe now.”
Her clinic provided abortions for over 25 years at its former location. At that building, they could smuggle patients in through a parking garage without walking past protesters. But when the clinic moved to a new location across the street to offer better services, the protesters followed, and this time there was no way to sneak past them.
Rain or shine, every day up to 25 protesters crowded the sidewalk outside the clinic’s doors, holding “nasty” signs and intimidating staff and patients, she said. “They would say negative things to women and call them names.” The situation escalated when the protesters attached video cameras to their signs to film patients, which Ryan said put their lives at risk if they were in a domestic violence situation.
“It came to a point that women were really fearful,” she said. “So we had to do something.”
She got an emergency court injunction to keep the protesters at bay, and called on the government to create a law similar to one in British Columbia enacted in 1996. It took 10 months for the province to introduce a law that would withstand a free speech Charter challenge.
Breaking the law — which also bars protesters from filming or taking photos of people going into the clinic — comes with a fine of up to $10,000 or even jail time.
The 50 metre distance isn’t far enough, Ryan contends, but it keeps the protesters far enough away that they can’t come into contact with patients. “They’re pushed back enough that you can choose to ignore them.”
“Abortion protesters are doing good work, they’re saving kids from being aborted.”
“They should just look at what was recently written and just substitute Newfoundland for Ontario,” Ryan said of Ontario’s proposed law. BC’s law did most of the work and Newfoundland updated the law, she said. Ryan hopes laws like these will spread to all provinces and territories across Canada.
But the idea of a buffer zone predictably has pro-life protesters calling it a foul on free speech.
23-year-old Nicolas Carnogursky was arrested outside the Ottawa Morgentaler Clinic near Canada’s parliament buildings on April 5 and charged with failing to comply with conditions that he stay away from the clinic. Staff called police after Carnogursky went inside the clinic. The clinic’s director could not be reached for comment.
Carnogursky told VICE News he has been arrested at the clinic more than once. He said he went inside to try to deter potential abortion clients, and reach clinic staff to “help them understand.”
Another protester who regularly stands outside the clinic had “saved five children from abortions just from holding a sign,” he added.
Canogursky likened abortion to the Holocaust and believes it is a Satanic practice that isn’t justified under any circumstances, including rape or incest. He said a buffer zone at the Morgentaler Clinic would infringe on his right to free speech, echoing the Campaign Life Coalition’s call for Ontario’s Attorney General to uphold free speech.
“Abortion protesters are doing good work, they’re saving kids from being aborted,” Canogursky insisted.
“I don’t have any regret to my decisions, and I believe the law would be destructive,” he added.
“Everyone has rights but there are limitations on rights.”
Although abortion clinics can apply for and receive injunctions against protesters, injunctions put the onus on clinics to go back to court for enforcement, Ryan said. Having a law allows police to issue fines on the spot, so it’s more immediate, she said.
The City of Ottawa can issue tickets to anyone who violates a by-law that creates zones for special events, but a city spokesperson told VICE News the bylaw does not apply specifically to individual protesters and ticketing “cannot provide the same immediate resolution of situations of serious harassment, threats or intimidation.”
Responding to free speech concerns, she said, “Your right to extend your arm ends at the tip of my nose.”
“Everyone has rights but there are limitations on rights,” she added, pointing at hate speech as an example of a limitation on free speech.
“Go ahead, protest, you can do that, but you can’t harass and intimidate somebody else because of your viewpoint.”
Cover: David Smith/The Canadian Press