Buffer zones around Alberta abortion clinics would be 'unconstitutional,' critics say

Critics say legislating buffer zones around abortion clinics in Alberta would undermine the right to assembly and free expression.

'It's just a blatant attempt by this government and [others] across Canada to silence pro-life voices'

Women demonstrate across the street from the abortion clinic in Edmonton. (Prolife Edmonton)

Critics say legislating buffer zones around abortion clinics in Alberta would undermine the right to assembly and free expression.

Premier Rachel Notley said last week her government is considering legislating safety perimeters to protect clients from harassment.

But Karen Richard, executive director of Prolife Edmonton, questioned the motive of legislating bubble zones that have long been in place at clinics in Edmonton and Calgary.

"It's just a blatant attempt by this government and other governments across Canada to silence pro-life voices, to remove the right to freedom of expression because it's opinion they just don't like," said Richard.

Last month, Ontario introduced buffer zones at abortion clinics after passing the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act.

Hospitals and pharmacies offering abortion services can apply to implement the perimeters, which are not automatic.

'That's their right'

Lawyer Jay Cameron, with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, described as unconstitutional zones that place restrictions on how close to clinics protesters can stand.

"It's a public street and a public sidewalk and citizens want to talk with their fellow citizens about the important issues of the day," he wrote in an email. "That's their right."

At the Woman's Health Options clinic in Edmonton an injunction has been in place since at least November 2001, according to court documents provided by Prolife Alberta.

Demonstrators are barred from impeding patients and staff, and from picketing or distributing literature within a specific "bubble zone" surrounding the clinic.

But Kathy Dawson with the Alberta Pro-choice Coalition said that doesn't stop some protesters from taking photos of clients. And, according to Notley, even following women home on the bus.

Offers 'another option'

Richard said demonstrators in Edmonton sign up for an hour of prayer during the "40 days for life campaign" in the spring and fall. A group of women also gathers near the Edmonton clinic every Wednesday morning, she said.

But Richard said demonstrators are not there to intimidate women, advising anyone who is harassed to call police. She said Hollywood and the media have grossly mischaracterized demonstrators as "aggressive" and "wacko."

"We're there to reassure people that there is lots of help that is out there, and if they are looking for resources it's still not too late," said Richard. "Our presence there doesn't make them feel uncomfortable. Our presence there only assures them that there's another option. Because I don't believe women are settled when they go there. So there is lots of turmoil, of course there is."

Cameron said concerns about the safety of patients can be addressed through Criminal Code legislation covering harassment, intimidation and obstruction.