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Quebec Wants to Ban Pro-Lifers From Protesting Outside Abortion Clinics

If approved, Quebec would be just the second Canadian province to establish a "safe zone" — in this case a 50 meter perimeter — outside abortion clinics.
February 24, 2016, 7:15pm
Pro-choice rally in Nova Scotia, Canada. (Photo by Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Quebec politicians want to create a "safe zone" around the province's abortion clinics that effectively ban pro-life protesters from standing and heckling outside their premises as women come and go.

The proposed 50-meter perimeter is the centerpiece of a new law introduced by the province's opposition party, the Parti Québécois, at its National Assembly on Wednesday.

It is based on legislation already in place in 13 American states, and in British Columbia, which established a "bubble-zone" law following the 1994 attempted murder of abortion provider Dr. Garson Romalis.

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Parti Québécois deputy Carole Poirier says she started working on Quebec's version following last year's deadly mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Clinic.

"We realized that we had protesters who were intimidating people around abortion clinics, here in Quebec," she says. "So I decided to take initiative and address this issue."

The province's medical community has also been pushing for this type of legislation — earlier this month, they published an open letter citing their concerns.

Related: Abortion Advocates Are Suing Only Canadian Province That Doesn't Allow Abortions

"We are asking that this right [to abortions] be protected by guaranteeing Quebec women's safe and confidential care, because walking through a group of protesters before undergoing an abortion has real consequences and for many, makes this already difficult procedure event more traumatizing," read the missive, which was signed by nearly 20 Quebec doctors.

Abortion clinics currently have the option of seeking court injunctions that make it illegal for protesters to manifest near their buildings, but Poirier explains this is a long and expensive process.

"The injunction is also tied to the clinic's address," she says, explaining that if a clinic moves, "they have to start all over again."

If passed, the new law would automatically establish a no-protest zone around all abortion clinics — and the homes of abortion clinic staff — "to ensure that women who are seeking these services are not intimidated, that staff members aren't photographed or followed," Poirier explains.

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In Montreal, France Desilets, director of the city's Morgentaler clinic — founded by the country's most famous abortion doctor — says she doesn't necessarily fear for her physical safety but has had to contact police a few times. "It's mostly harassment, intimidation. I've personally experienced events in my life where I've been scared, I've been followed on the subway, I've had protesters trying to get into the clinic while I'm there by myself."

But Quebec pro-life activist George Buscemi says the bill casts their movement in an unfair light. He says the province's activists are "sweet and smart" and that their presence can be beneficial to women. "When we're close to the clinics, we are entirely peaceful, we are law abiding. We have a sign that says, 'If you are pregnant and confused, we can help you,' nothing aggressive."

Buscemi and other pro-life groups have denounced the bill as an attack on their right to free expression. "Some women feel a slight discomfort upon seeing us, but in a society that allows divergent opinions, you have to live with that."

Related: Harrowing Experiences of Medical Abortions on Canada's Prince Edward Island Renews Criticism

The 2015 court decision granting injunctions to three Montreal clinics, however, mentions several affidavits which claim the protesters' presence, signs and pamphlets upset and stressed the women, increasing the risks of the procedure.

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Joyce Arthur, a pro-choice activist involved in shaping the British Columbia legislation, says this is part of the reason the "free speech" argument has failed in court time and time again.

"[After the law was passed in 1994] the anti-abortion activists challenged it by getting arrested," she told VICE News. "And it was admitted by crown that law did infringe right to free speech of the protesters but that other interests superceded that, so women's privacy, dignity and constitutional rights to bodily security, their right to a necessary health service in an atmosphere of privacy and dignity basically overrode the protesters right to free speech."

Plus, she adds, the right to free speech is only narrowly affected. "They can still protest anywhere else, including online or other venues."

Poirier says she thinks the bill will easily pass into law. "What I'm hoping is that we'll be able to get this through as quickly as possible so that we can protect our clinics before the end of the session. I think we'll be able to quickly reach unanimity."

Joseph Elfassi contributed reporting. 

Follow Brigitte Noël on Twitter: @Brige_Noel