Safe zones around abortion clinics now in place

A new Ontario law establishing safe zones around abortion clinics is now in place, with Ottawa police out enforcing the new boundaries.

New law bans protesting against abortion within 50 metres of a clinic

Demonstrators rally on Sparks Street to protest Ontario's new law on safe access zones near abortion clinics, which came into force Thursday. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

A new Ontario law establishing safe zones around abortion clinics is now in place, and  Ottawa police were out on Thursday enforcing the boundaries.

The Safe Access to Abortion Services Act, which received royal assent in October last year, establishes a ban on protesting within a 50-metre radius of an abortion clinic.

The new law means women across the province can access abortion services safely and securely, free from intimidation or interference, said Ontario Attorney General and Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi.

Although abortion clinic staff have for years complained about aggressive demonstrators, Naqvi said reports of escalating violence near the Morgentaler Clinic in downtown Ottawa inspired the new law.

"We have heard instances where women have been spat on," he said. "Those types of things are absolutely unacceptable."

Clinics can also apply to extend the radius up to 150 metres. Whatever the zone is established to be, the legislation states that it begins at the boundaries of the property the clinic sits on — not at the clinic's front door.

Other health facilities that offer abortion services, including hospitals and pharmacies, can apply for safe access zones as well, though they aren't automatically included in the legislation.

Preventing harassment, intimidation

The law has been well received by groups that have long demanded better protections for women seeking abortion services.

"We're thrilled with it," said Darrah Teitel, a spokesperson for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

Teitel said she hopes other provinces will follow suit, and rejected critics who argue the law restricts the rights of protesters to freely express their beliefs.

Darrah Teitel, spokesperson for Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights, says Ontario's new law on safe zones will protect women seeking medical help and counselling. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

"I would say the actions of harassment and intimidation and threats — and in some cases physical violence — preclude their ability to do that," she said.

Protesters assemble outside safe zone

Demonstrators gathered on Sparks Street Thursday say there's no proof any of them have ever acted inappropriately.

"The pro-life movement is a peaceful movement and we would never, never allow anyone to behave in that way towards any woman," said Louise Harbour, decrying the new law as an attack on freedom of speech.

"We only believe in peaceful means to present our message," she said.

Demonstrator Louise Harbour says Ontario's new law on safe zones near abortion clinics is an attack on freedom of speech. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

Ottawa police were on site, marking a "physically visible" boundary to let protestors know where the new safe zone starts.

"We respect the fact that people have an opinion to promote, but we also [will be there] for the safety of the public as well as the laws we have to enforce," said Const. Chuck Benoit.

One of the protesting groups, Campaign Life Coalition, said they already met with police to ensure they won't be in violation of the new law.

"The 50 metres was literally paced out by the police, so that we would know exactly where we can stand with our signs," said the coalition's Johanne Brownrigg.

Police to issue warnings at first

Anyone violating the new rules will be risking a hefty fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to six months in prison for a first-time offence.

Police will only be issuing warnings at first, Const. Benoit said.

"They will proceed to arresting people if it continues."

The bill also stipulates that a person cannot be convicted unless they know about the safe zone.

In order to avoid such a situation, Benoit said the police have been focusing on educating the public about the new safe zone.

"That's a reason we will be [at the protests], to educate the people."

The small circle represents a 50-metre safety zone and the larger circle represents a 150-metre safety zone, which would require special regulation. (Google Maps)

Brownrigg said her group is seeking other ways to protest with the new law coming into effect.

"We might not have access to directly communicate with women as we've had, but we will find other ways," Brownrigg said.

The coalition is unsure what other ways they will be pursuing, but Brownrigg said they will likely channel their efforts to lobbying the provincial government.

"If we have to invent another campaign we will."

Brownrigg did not rule out the possibility of challenging the law in the courts, but did not comment on whether they would proceed with a legal challenge.

With files from Idil Mussa