The provincial government is moving to make obtaining abortion and other reproductive health services safer for Ontario women by introducing legislation that creates safe access zones around abortion clinics and other health facilities.
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Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act at a women's health clinic in Toronto Wednesday afternoon.
The bill does not ban protesting. Rather, it allows for safe access zones of between 50 and 150 metres outside clinics and health facilities that offer abortion services, the homes of clinic staff and the homes and offices of other health professionals who provide abortion services or where the abortion pill is available.
"In these designated areas, anti-abortion activities interfering with anyone accessing abortion services will be prohibited," Naqvi told reporters.
Anyone convicted of violating the law could face a fine of up to $5,000 and/or six months in prison for a first offence, and a fine of between $1,000 and $10,000 and up to one year in jail for second and subsequent offences.
Ministry staff began work on the bill over the summer, after Naqvi became alarmed by reports of protests outside abortion clinics, including an incident in Ottawa where a woman was spat on.
'What is happening here?'
Jackie Jeffs, executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario, said Wednesday she is "very disappointed" in the legislation, arguing that it attempts to address a problem that does not exist. She cited a report, entitled "Abortion health services in Canada," which was published in Canadian Family Physician, the journal of the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
The paper noted that abortion facilities across Canada reported "very little harassment."
"So what is happening here, then? Why do we suddenly have legislation that I believe is outside the Ontario government's jurisdiction, for one thing? Two, I believe it's unconstitutional for what it's trying to do," Jeffs told Radio-Canada Wednesday afternoon.
"But why would you have legislation for a problem that we actually do not have? So I'm really concerned because that sounds more like tyranny to me than democracy."
She said the spitting incident in Ottawa was "absolutely awful and should never happen." But she argued that harassment laws already cover such situations.
"They are redefining harassment, redefining intimidation, which we have already defined in our criminal code," Jeff said.
Safe zones protect all patients: advocate
While clinics and facilities, and staffers' homes, will be protected by these safe access zones, clinic staff and other health professionals will be protected from harassment anywhere they go in the province.
The province's eight abortion clinics will be automatically protected by a 50 metre safe zone, which is about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, Naqvi said. That size could grow to 150 m if the clinic files an application.
Other facilities that provide abortion services, including the abortion pill — such as hospitals, health centres and pharmacies — can also apply for a safe access zone of up to 150 m, as can health professionals who provide such services outside of a clinic setting.
The safe zones not only protect women accessing abortion services, said Sarah Hobbs Blyth, executive director of Planned Parenthood, noting that the agency provides a range of health services.
"These zones protect our clients' right to access the services that they need without harassment. The intimidation tactics used by anti-choice protesters harm those accessing mental health, primary care, and abortion services alike," Hobbs Blyth said in a statement.
"We commend the province for introducing legislation that will safeguard reproductive choice and other healthcare services."
'No one wants this'
The move was met with some indirect criticism from Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown. Not long before Naqvi made the announcement, Brown released a minute-long video on Twitter accusing Premier Kathleen Wynne of having an "agenda."
"That agenda is to reopen debates about divisive social issues," Brown said. "No one wants this. I don't want it."
Brown said he is pro-choice and "that includes protecting women exercising their rights free from intimidation or harassment."
While the Wynne government deals with these issues, Brown said, he will focus on creating jobs, helping middle-class families and ending waste and corruption.
Asked about Brown's comments at his news conference, Naqvi replied:
"Let me be very clear: ensuring women's safety is not a divisive issue," he said. "It may be a divisive issue in the Conservative caucus."