Edmonton

'Safe zones' will protect patients from harassment, says manager of Edmonton abortion clinic

Legislation that would institute safe zones around abortion clinics would prevent patients from harassment, says the manager of Edmonton’s only abortion clinic

'It's really escalated with the number of people, their aggressiveness, their lack of respect'

Anti-abortion advocates have long protested an injunctions against picketing at abortion clinics. (Canadian Press)

Legislation that would institute safe zones around abortion clinics would prevent patients from harassment, says the manager of Edmonton's only abortion clinic.

Kim Cholewa, clinic manager at Woman's Health Options, which was established by abortion-rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler, said anti-abortion protesters have become increasingly aggressive.

"These last couple of years, it's really escalated with the number of people, their aggressiveness, their lack of respect to our injunction, the harassment and intimidation of our patients," Cholewa said Thursday. "It has got way worse."

'Not about freedom of speech'

The NDP government gave official notice in the legislature Wednesday that it will establish no-go zones around clinics that perform abortions.

The legislation will be introduced Thursday. Health Minister Sarah Hoffman declined to discuss details Wednesday but said intimidation of patients is on the rise.

"This is not about freedom of speech," said Hoffman. "This is about deliberate targeting by intimidation, shame, harassment and bullying of women who are often vulnerable.

"That is completely unacceptable. Alberta women should have the right to access the care that's right for them, including safe access to abortion services."

Cholewa said her clinic already has a court injunction to keep protesters away from the property. Demonstrators are barred from impeding patients and staff, and from picketing or distributing literature within a specific "bubble zone" surrounding the clinic.

The court order has been in place since 2002, but it has become ineffective, said Cholewa.

"Women are coming into a building to have a Health Canada-approved, Alberta-approved, ordinary medical procedure that is ... one of the most common procedures in Canada, and they cannot come into this building without being harassed and intimidated."

Protesters show up outside the clinic a few times a week, said Cholewa. She said they often violate the court order by trespassing onto clinic property or verbally abusing patients.

Cholewa said clinic staff have to call police a few times each month.

She welcomes the new legislation, and dismisses critics who suggest the laws would undermine the right to assembly and free expression.

"They have a right to free speech, and they can protest, and they can be on their side of the street, but there is a higher level of intimidation, yelling and harassment of people coming in," Cholewa said. 

"I'm not sure if that's free speech."

If we don't enforce the meagre little order that we have ... it would be chaos.- Celia Posyniak 

Together, Women's Health Options in Edmonton and the Kensington Clinic in Calgary handle about 75 per cent of abortions in Alberta.

Celia Posyniak, executive director of the Kensington Clinic, joined Hoffman at a government news conference Wednesday. Posyniak said the court order barring demonstrators from her facility has also become ineffective.

She said protesters have been violating the rule that says they are to stay across the street and have been harassing patients with signs, verbal abuse and occasional attacks.

She said the clinic has also been vandalized.

Posyniak said staff have to keep calling police to enforce the order, but recognize that officers are stretched to the limit.

"It's frankly a waste of police resources," said Posyniak. "They have told us we're not a priority and I understand that. However, if we don't enforce the meagre little order that we have ... it would be chaos."

If the legislation were to pass, Alberta would join British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador in creating safe zones to keep protesters away from patients.

Ontario legislation keeps protesters 50 metres away. Anyone who breaks the law can face a fine starting at $5,000 or given six months in jail.

Posyniak said the Alberta legislation will only be effective if there are some consequences for law-breakers.

With files from the Canadian Press

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