Abortion clinic protestors in Ottawa could be handled by buffer laws

Buffer zones are needed to prevent anti-abortion protesters from harassing clients, clinics say. Photo from Getty Images

Anti-abortion protests outside Ottawa’s only private clinic providing abortion services are causing stress for staff and patients, and some are calling for Ottawa Police and local politicians to do more.

But while the problem seems particularly acute in Ottawa, it’s seen at clinics and hospitals across the country, says the head of a national pro-choice organization.

“I know that this has been going on for a long time and really the problem comes down to the lack of adequate response by Ottawa police,” Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), tells Yahoo Canada News. “They’re not enforcing the law.”

The protests outside the Ottawa Morgentaler clinic gained national attention when they were the subject of a Toronto Star column on Wednesday. In that article and others published since clinic staff have said that a patient was spat on as she arrived and protestors that protestors shouted at patients and their escorts.

At the same time, there are concerns in New Brunswick about plans to re-open the New Brunswick Right to Life Centre next door to Clinic 554, a family practice that offers abortion services not covered by provincial health insurance.

A spokesperson for the Right to Life group told CBC News that the group is “strongly committed to the principles of civility and respect toward all members of the public” but a Clinic 554 volunteer said that she witnessed patients experience intimidation from protesters when the site’s previous building, which was torn down after a July 2016 fire, was in place.

In 2010 the ARCC completed a survey on clinic protest and the majority of clinics had seen some protestors outside, Arthur says. “Ottawa has always been one of the worst, if not the worst,” Arthur says about protest intensity in the capital city.

“Ottawa has always been one of the worst, if not the worst,” Arthur says about protest intensity in the capital city.

Role of police and local laws

In Ottawa a “special events” city bylaw restricts demonstrators against the clinic to the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from its entrance–a bylaw that clinic staff have told media is regularly violated. The bylaw states that demonstrations with less than 150 participants outside a property that is not internationally protected have to stay on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.

Police said in a statement that the “special events” bylaw is meant to apply to large-scale events requiring the management of municipal and local resources, not to “an individual engaged in expressive activity on a sidewalk.”

But police have a role to play in ensuring that protestors are respecting the law and not infringing on the safety of clinic staff and patients, Arthur says, particularly when there is evidence that the demonstrators could be causing real harm to clinic patients. One UK study found that more than three-quarters of patients were more traumatized by anti-abortion protesters than by the procedure itself, for example.

The Ottawa clinic’s director of operations, Shayna Hodson, told the Toronto Star that police have threatened charges of harassment or obstruction if they continue to request help with the protestors. Ottawa police say they have worked for years to deal with protests outside the clinic and take all reported incidents seriously.

“Our police officers routinely monitor this demonstration, do respond to calls for service, and take action that is appropriate in the circumstances,” Ottawa Police Service Chief Charles Bordeleau said in a statement released Thursday. “We continually respond to calls for service at this location, most related to protestors and graphic signs.”

When reached for comment, Ottawa police referred to the written statement released Thursday.

Bubble-zone laws like those in place in Newfoundland and British Columbia would go a long way towards protecting clinics, Arthur says. The Newfoundland and Labrador law, implemented last year, created boundaries of 50 metres from clinics, 10 metres from hospitals, and 160 metres from the properties of clinic owners and health professionals. British Columbia has had a similar law, enforcing a 30-metre radius, since 1995. Such laws have been found

British Columbia has had a similar law, enforcing a 30-metre radius, since 1995. Such laws have been found constitutional through the courts and are proven effective in the provinces that have them she says.

“What we really need is a provincial buffer zone law,” Arthur says. “We have the precedent in B.C. and Newfoundland.”

The Morgentaler clinic would have to go through the courts if they would like to obtain a bubble zone around the clinic, as exists for the Morgentaler clinic in Toronto, police said in their statement. Some other cities across the country, including in Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, have court injunctions in place that provide some measure of protection, but those are not permanent.

“Unfortunately the Ottawa clinic is between a rock and a hard place without the police enforcing the law to protect them,” Arthur says. “People’s health and safety is at sake.”