Nfld. & Labrador

Anti-abortion protests should be illegal outside clinics, says N.L. justice minister

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says he wants to implement "buffer zones" around abortion clinics in Newfoundland and Labrador where protests and demonstrations would be banned.

Protest-free 'Bubble Zone' law already upheld in British Columbia

Pro-life protesters stand outside the Athena Health Centre on LeMarchant Road in St. John's several days a week brandishing signs. The province's justice minister wants 'buffer zones' around clinics where protests are banned. (Laura Howells/CBC)

The provincial justice minister says he wants to implement "buffer zones" outside abortion clinics in Newfoundland and Labrador where protests and demonstrations would be banned.

Andrew Parsons said such a law would protect women seeking abortions from harassment and intimidation.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says women should not be harassed while receiving medical services. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"Free speech is one thing, but harassing someone that's using a medical facility is a whole different situation," Parsons told CBC News.

"No one should be intimidated when accessing medical services in this province, and that includes abortion."

Parsons said the Justice Department has been looking into the matter and he hopes to put legislation forward in the fall.

'Patients are scared'

Rolanda Ryan owns the Athena Health Centre, one of two places in the province that performs abortions.

She said protesters are in front of the St. John's clinic at least two days a week, sometimes taking photographs of people going in and out.

"This is a huge, huge concern for us," said Ryan.

"My patients are scared ...There are people who are really concerned for their own safety."

A lawyer approached Parsons on behalf of the clinic about enacting legislation a few months ago.

Freedom of speech violation, say protesters

Colette Fleming, who describes herself as "very pro-life," protests outside the Athena Clinic at least a couple of days each week. She said banning protests outside the clinic would be an infringement on her right to free expression.

"Everybody has the right to assembly. Everybody has the right to protest something that they do not agree with and I think that it's incumbent on the government to protect everybody," she said.

"If you're going to bring in laws about protesting, I think it would have to apply to everyone about every issue, and not just a pro-life issue."

Anti-abortion groups say they do not interfere with patients at the clinic. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Fleming said it's not true that the pro-life supporters harass women going in for abortions; she said they just stand on the sidewalk with their signs, praying.

"We conduct ourselves very civilly, because that's what we do. It's all about respect for life," she said.

"We respect people and certainly would not do anything to offend anybody."

'Bubble-zone' law upheld in B.C.

British Columbia has banned protests within a 30 metre radius of abortion clinics since 1995.

In 2008, the province's highest court dismissed a constitutional challenge of the law, which claimed it violated freedom of expression under the Charter.

Parsons said that decision sets a promising precedent for Newfoundland and Labrador.

"[It] gives me hope that if we were to create similar legislation here it should withstand similar challenges," he said.

St. John's is the only place where women can access an abortion in Newfoundland and Labrador. The procedure is available at the Athena Health Centre (formerly the Morgentaler Clinic) on LeMarchant Road and at the Health Sciences Centre.

New NDP policy

At its convention last weekend, the provincial New Democratic Party adopted a resolution calling for a 50-metre radius encircling abortion providers, within which all protests and gatherings would be banned.

Rolanda Ryan, owner of the Athena Health Centre, says protesters pose a serious safety concern for her patients. (CBC)

Peg Norman is a party member and past manager of the St. John's Morgentaler Clinic.

Norman said a small group of people has consistently protested outside the abortion clinic since it opened in 1990.

She said that in recent years protesters have "stepped up" their demonstrations.

"For a woman who's already gone through the difficult process of making that decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, to then have to face judgement of the self-righteous that are standing out on the sidewalk is not necessary," said Norman.

"[The women] are not doing anything wrong. They are accessing a legal, medical procedure, and to have to face that is totally unacceptable."

About the Author

Laura Howells is a journalist from St. John's who is now working in Toronto and Hamilton. You can reach her at laura.howells@cbc.ca.