N.B. judge bans anti-abortion group from protesting outside Bathurst hospital

A New Brunswick judge has banned an anti-abortion group from demonstrating outside a hospital in northern New Brunswick.

Pickets put safety of patients and employees at Chaleur Regional Hospital at risk, judge rules

The court order prohibits anti-abortion activists from demonstrating anywhere on the Chaleur Regional Hospital's sprawling grounds in Bathurst.

As provinces across Canada move to establish protest-free "buffer zones" around abortion providers, a judge has banned anti-abortion activists from demonstrating outside a hospital in northern New Brunswick.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Reginald Leger granted a permanent injunction against protesters outside the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.

The anti-abortion pickets, affiliated with the 40 Days for Life campaign, put the safety of patients and employees at risk, Leger said in his recent decision.

The ruling comes amid efforts across the country to strike a balance between the constitutional right to free expression and ensuring safe access to health-care services without harassment or intimidation.

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said Monday that he plans to introduce legislation that would create safe zones outside abortion clinics in that province, citing reports of harassment at an Ottawa clinic.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government introduced a law last November, modelled after British Columbia's Access to Abortion Services Act, to keep protesters at least 50 metres away from an abortion clinic.

The restrictions placed on the New Brunswick anti-abortion group are more sweeping.

The judge has prohibited the activists from demonstrating anywhere on the hospital's sprawling grounds.

Ambulance forced to brake

The Vitalité Health Network, which operates the hospital, applied for the permanent injunction after the anti-abortion group obstructed traffic at the hospital and forced an ambulance to stop en route to the emergency department in 2012.

The ambulance driver described during the trial having to brake "as fast as possible" because a picket at the hospital had stepped off the sidewalk.

I could see my partner standing in the back telling my ... patient 'You're going to be OK buddy, we're going to get you there.'- Michel Fournier, paramedic

His co-worker was tossed toward the back of the ambulance, causing the mask on a patient suffering from cardiac discomfort to be dislodged.

"I could see my partner standing in the back telling my ... patient 'You're going to be OK buddy, we're going to get you there,"' ambulance paramedic Michel Fournier told the court.

But Bernard Jacques, a defendant in the case, said the group is made up of older people protesting peacefully in silence and prayer to raise awareness about abortion.

Ronald Jessulat, another defendant, said group members have the right to express deeply held religious beliefs near the public hospital in an attempt to change the minds of women considering an abortion.

Hospital officials said they took no position on the abortion debate but instead were concerned the safety of patients and employees was at risk.

Reasonable limit on rights

The judge agreed the safety concerns warranted an injunction and has banned the group from demonstrating at the hospital or harassing any person arriving or leaving the property.

Leger noted that while freedom of expression is critically important in a free and democratic society, the order to demonstrate off hospital grounds is a reasonable limit on the defendants' rights.

New Brunswick has shifted away from a history of restricting abortion access.

In 2014, Premier Brian Gallant scrapped a contentious rule that required women to get the approval of two doctors before an abortion.

Last month, New Brunswick became the first province to announce that it will offer the abortion pill Mifegymiso to women free of charge.