An anti-abortion group in Fredericton will rebuild its offices next to Clinic 554, a family practice that also offers abortions not covered by medicare.
The original New Brunswick Right to Life centre at 562 Brunswick St. was torn down after it was damaged in a fire in July 2016.
On Wednesday evening, the city's Planning and Advisory Committee approved the group's application for a variance to allow a nine-metre, two-storey clinic and office building, which is lower than the area's minimum building height of 10 metres.
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Heather Hughes, property manager and executive director for group, said its purpose is to provide information and support to women dealing with unexpected pregnancies.
The new building will include a Women's Care Centre, offering pregnancy counselling, tests and limited obstetrical ultrasounds. The group hopes to start construction of its new building this year.
Hughes responded to concerns raised about the group moving back next door to the abortion clinic and said Right to Life "is strongly committed to the principles of civility and respect toward all members of the public."
"The association has no interest in shaming anyone and we do not agree that our very presence next door somehow constitutes a form of shaming."
People in favour and against the group's rebuilding plans were present at the meeting, though no one but Hughes spoke publicly. The committee also voted in favour of the construction permit without further discussion.
City staff had recommended approving the application since the building would not be "out of context" and would be a transition from the adjacent, smaller medical clinic and a taller apartment building. Staff also had no issue with the building's five parking spaces, because the previous site operated with the same amount.
But not everyone was in favour of the group's plans to rebuild. Sophie Lavoie, a member of Reproductive Justice New Brunswick, was one of several people who wrote to the committee before Wednesday's meeting, asking it to reject Right to Life's proposal.
Lavoie, who lives near the clinic, said she witnessed members of the anti-abortion group hold vigils and demonstrations in front of Clinic 554, formerly the Morgentaler Clinic, in the past. The group or its supporters harassed people seeking health care at the clinic and provided women with incomplete information about their options for dealing with a pregnancy, she said.
"They used to gather in the parking lot behind the Mother and Child House, so I'm sure those activities will be resuming and they are not very conducive to the Clinic 554 being able to do its job with peace of mind and privacy for the people who are going in there," she said.
Other letter writers worried about being harassed when accessing the clinic for general health care services once the charity reopens.
Lavoie suggested that instead of allowing Right to Life to rebuild in the same location, council should have created legislation that restricts protesters around abortion clinics. Similar "bubble zone laws" were previously introduced in other Canadian provinces, including Newfoundland and B.C., she said.
"By having one [clinic] right next to the other, it makes for confrontation," she said. "Apparently, women's reproductive health is not something that the city seems to be worried about or seems to have as a priority."
Looking to the future
Hughes said Right to Life believes in the possibility of peaceful co-existence and has tried hard to maintain a civil relationship with Clinic 554.
"I do think that we are good neighbours," she said.
She later told the CBC that she could not comment on the letters or allegations of people working for Right to Life harassing those wanting to access the abortion clinic next door.
"I am not aware of all these things," she said. "I am looking forward to the future and I am looking forward to getting the building built and being able to be back in our own space again,
"So what has happened in the past, I really cannot comment on that."
N.B. abortion laws
New Brunswick changed some of its restrictive abortion regulations in 2014. Previously, women needed two physicians to certify the procedure is medically necessary.
Now, non-specialists can perform the procedure, though the province only pays for it if it is performed at a hospital in one of two cities, Bathurst or Moncton. Clinic 554 offers the procedure but women have to pay the cost of $700 to $850 out of pocket.