Ontario Attorney General and Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi plans to propose a bill this fall that would create safe zones around abortion clinics in the province, citing reports of harassment by a small group of protesters outside a clinic in his riding.
Naqvi made the announcement Monday morning alongside Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Coun. Catherine McKenney, saying laws like this are more important than ever in an increasingly polarized society.
"These zones around abortion clinics will ensure that women across Ontario have safe access to healthcare services, and that their privacy and dignity are protected when doing so," Naqvi said.
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He wouldn't offer details on the measures that could be in that bill, but said the legislation will need to stand up to any court challenges based on the rights of protesters.
"We [have to ensure] that we protect the right to free speech," he said.
"Because we are talking about two competing rights — in our view, one is paramount, which is a woman's right to choose — we need to make sure this legislation strikes the right balance."
Harassment 'getting worse,' Watson claims
Last week Watson asked the province to create a law to protect women's access to abortion services, citing reports of patients and staff being confronted while trying to access the Morgentaler Clinic on Bank Street.
"We've seen harassment over the years on Bank Street at the clinic but it was starting in many ways to get worse," he said.
Watson's request came after a recommendation from city solicitor Rick O'Connor, who said municipal bylaws would be difficult to enforce, and the penalties aren't harsh enough.
The executive director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, a partner of the downtown Ottawa clinic, said she's excited about Naqvi's proposal.
"In a perfect world it would happen tomorrow but realistically, the idea something so significant, something that's been happening for decades could be resolved or addressed within a matter of months, we certainly can celebrate that today," said Catherine Macnab.
"That doesn't change the fact there are people that are going to need protection today, tomorrow and every day between now and then."
While a 1994 court injunction keeps protesters at least 150 metres away from three abortion clinics in Toronto, Ottawa's downtown clinic isn't covered because it wasn't open at the time.
Macnab said she isn't focused on how far protesters should be kept away from Ottawa clinics, but on making a law that's enforceable by police and the courts.
Louise Harbour, executive director of the anti-abortion group Action Life Ottawa, is calling for a more detailed investigation into what's happening outside the clinic before limiting the rights of protesters.
"No one in the pro-life movement would support anyone spitting on a woman, harassing a woman because she's entering an abortion clinic," Harbour said.
"I think there needs to be a legal due process by which the clinic would have to prove [the harassment occurred]."
Police have 'difficult job'
Ottawa's Morgentaler Clinic provides abortion care and related services, including counselling, contraceptive education and testing for sexually transmitted infections, according to its website.
In April, Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau issued a statement saying police "have been working for years to deal with ongoing demonstrations there," and that the force responds to calls for service on a continual basis, mainly related to protestors and graphic signs.
He said a man was arrested in December 2016 and later charged with mischief after he was given a trespass notice by security, then came back and told police he would keep coming back.
Bordeleau said officers monitoring the protests "have the difficult job of ensuring the safety and security of all those involved or impacted by a demonstration," but have also been accused of not respecting the rights of protesters gathered outside the clinic.
If the clinic wants a protected "bubble" zone that demonstrators would not be allowed to enter, it would have to pursue the issue with the courts as the police service does not have the authority to grant one, Bordeleau added.