UCP MLAs sidestep debate on abortion clinic 'bubble zones'

MLAs from the United Conservative Party did not vote or participate in a debate on the abortion clinic "bubble zone" bill when it came up for debate for the first time Thursday.

Opposition party has slammed Bill 9 as political trap by the governing NDP

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman calls for all members of the legislature to support Bill 9 during Thursday's debate. 0:42

MLAs from the United Conservative Party did not vote or participate in a debate on the abortion clinic "bubble zone" bill when it came up for debate for the first time Thursday.

The bill passed second reading Tuesday afternoon, but MLAs with the Official Opposition left the chamber when members were called to vote on the bill, which proposes a 50-metre protester-free zone around the stand-alone abortion clinics in Edmonton and Calgary.

As she closed debate on this phase of the bill, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman became visibly emotional speaking about the stories she heard about patients at the Kensington Clinic, an abortion clinic in Calgary. 

The UCP MLAs in the house, all male, looked at their phones or computers or did paperwork while Hoffman spoke.

"Alberta women deserve 100 per cent support in this legislature," she said. "They don't deserve to be ignored by their MLAs who hide when it's time to protect them. They don't deserve an opposition that courts the support of groups that would defund their health care and their rights. 

"And they don't deserve to be called a distraction," Hoffman added in a rebuke to how UCP Leader Jason Kenney characterized the bill. 

Once the vote was recorded, some of the UCP members immediately returned to the chamber to the jeers of other MLAs.

Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen took a thinly veiled dig against Kenney while slamming his caucus for not engaging.

"This is not about free speech," Jansen told the legislature.

"This is about a woman exercising her legal, hard-fought right to her reproductive choices without being bullied by a far-right conservative group who feels emboldened in this province because they have leadership that has told them that they are making headway on this."

Prior to boarding her flight to Arizona for a conference, Premier Rachel Notley told reporters at the Edmonton International Airport that the UCP was showing political cowardice and derogation of their duty.

"That's what you were elected to do." she said. "To be scared to talk to people about your positions on important issues that come before the legislature is absolutely ridiculous and it doesn't show leadership. Again, it shows ducking, diving, hiding from what your real agenda is."

Bill a distraction, UCP says 

Angela Pitt, the MLA for Airdrie, has so far been the only member of the UCP caucus to speak to the bill in the legislature.
During the Bill 9 debate Thursday, Sandra Jansen recalled her 2016 experience with anti-abortion activists. 1:23

When the law was introduced last month, PItt indicated the caucus would not vote or participate in debate.

Kenney said the governing NDP is using the bill to distract from its economic record.

He said he thinks the bill is not required as the clinics already have injunctions to keep protesters away. Staff at the clinics can return to court if they need to make the zones larger, he said.

Staff at the Kensington Clinic and  Women's Health Options in Edmonton say the injunctions provide for no penalties for protesters who keep coming back.

In addition to members of the NDP caucus, Alberta Party MLAs Rick Fraser, Karen McPherson and Greg Clark, Liberal MLA David Swann  and Progressive Conservative MLA Richard Starke voted in favour of second reading. 

The only dissenting vote came from Independent MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who quipped that in the absence of the UCP, he was the leader of the Official Opposition. Earlier Thursday, Fildebrandt spoke in favour of protecting women from harassment outside abortion clinics. 

His issue with Bill 9 was that he felt it should be expanded to cover other types of protests. His amendment to withdraw the bill for a reboot was defeated 41-1.

About the Author

Michelle Bellefontaine

Reporter/Web editor

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada. You can reach her at michelle.bellefontaine @cbc.ca.