When patients go to a health-care facility for treatment, they deserve to feel safe and have their privacy protected from the intimidating presence of anti-abortion protesters — and so do the people that work there. A private member’s bill, introduced by MLA Jennifer Bowes in March and to be brought back this week, will help ensure that Saskatchewan residents who provide or receive abortion care will have their safety and dignity protected.
As Bowes has said: “It is far too common to hear stories of patients being aggressively harassed while simply trying to make the best medical decisions for their reproductive health. No patient or health-care service provider in this country should ever face harassment and intimidation for accessing or providing an essential service.”
The Saskatchewan law would ban anti-abortion protesters within 50 metres of a facility, and in some cases 150 metres. British Columbia has enforced a very similar law since 1995 and it has been held to be constitutional. Therefore, we can be confident that Bill 608 would also meet Charter scrutiny. In fact, based on the legal soundness of the B.C. law, similar laws have been passed in five provinces: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia. Saskatchewan would simply be following in their footsteps.
While safe access zone laws do infringe on free speech, it’s not a blanket restriction. Protesters are free to protest anywhere except within a narrow zone around facilities that provide abortion. A key part of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 1, allows fundamental rights like freedom of expression to be limited in a reasonable manner to protect other rights. Protesters also should not be allowed to force their message onto a captive audience — in this case people accessing a medically necessary service that’s available at only handful of locations in Saskatchewan.
The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in 2008 (R. v. Spratt, 2008 BCCA 340) that the Access to Abortion Services Act is constitutional because women’s right to access a necessary medical treatment in an atmosphere of privacy, safety and dignity takes precedence over freedom of expression in that specific context. When the protesters appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, it declined to take the case, meaning the law stands as constitutional.
The B.C. law has successfully deterred protesters and protected people at clinics for 26 years. After the law passed in 1995, protesters stopped coming to one clinic, while at another clinic, protesters had to stand across the street and could no longer approach or identify patients entering the clinic. Clinics in B.C. and across the country have reported that their safe access zone laws work well. Although a legal challenge is currently happening in Ontario, launched by an Ottawa protester, we are confident the government will prevail based on evidence and past precedent.
Safe access zones are important because they ensure the safety and privacy of providers, staff and patients as they come and go from the facility. The zones protect the right to access health-care services and safeguard patients’ health by reducing the risk of complications from emotional distress (caused by the protesters) just before undergoing a medical procedure. Further, the zones foster community peace by reducing neighbourhood nuisance and noise and other hazards, and limiting the risk of violence and vandalism.
Some opposed to safe access zones claim that existing laws against assault and harassment should be used instead. This won’t work because it requires people to press charges and testify in court. Women going to a clinic for a procedure as private and stigmatized as abortion virtually never pursue criminal charges.
Second, it’s not just criminal activities that pose a problem — the mere presence of “peaceful” protesters causes anxiety and fear for patients and gives rise to confidentiality concerns. Given the intrusive nature of anti-choice protests outside facilities that provide abortion, people deserve the ongoing protection and privacy that only a safe-access zone law can provide.
We urge all Saskatchewan MLAs to vote in favour of this important bill to protect the safety, dignity and privacy of patients who need an abortion.
Joyce Arthur is the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
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