Ottawa mayor welcomes safe zones for abortion clinics, protesters decry 'overreach'

Ottawa's mayor is welcoming proposed provincial legislation creating "safety access zones" around abortion clinics, while anti-abortion activists say the bill is unnecessary and "overreaching."

Bill would create 50-metre zone to protect people accessing abortion providers

Cyril Winter, an Ottawa anti-abortion activist, says he will continue protesting the Bank Street clinic. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Ottawa's mayor is welcoming proposed provincial legislation creating "safety access zones" around abortion clinics, while anti-abortion activists say the bill is unnecessary and "overreaching."

Attorney General Yasir Naqvi unveiled a bill Wednesday that would create zones of between 50 and 150 metres outside clinics and facilities that offer abortion services, along with the homes of staff and the offices of health professionals who provide abortions services or access to the abortion pill.

The bill wouldn't ban protesting, but prohibits any activity that would interfere with someone accessing abortion services.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson had called for the province to consider some kind of legislation after reports women were harassed and confronted on their way to the Morgentaler Clinic on Bank Street.

Cyril Winter regularly stands in front of the Morgentaler Clinic holding signs with graphic images of fetuses and wears a baby doll around his neck.

Cyril Winter speaks to an Ottawa police officer who was investigating a disturbance in front of the Morgentaler Clinic on Bank Street. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

"It's actually a secrecy zone, there's no safety issue here whatsoever," Winter said.

He said if there is a safety issue it has to do with people harassing and assaulting him, since stories about harassment in front of the clinic grabbed headlines this summer

Winter said he isn't surprised by the bill and will continue to protest if it becomes law.

"I'll have to abide by the law, wherever they push me. They'll get their secrecy here."

Police can now deal with harassment, mayor says

Mayor Watson welcomed the announcement from the Attorney General's office.

"If individual protesters feel they're doing nothing wrong, then they can do nothing wrong farther afield so they don't interrupt a women's right to go and get medical counseling or a medical procedure at the clinic on Bank Street," Watson said.

The mayor said Ottawa's existing bylaw was designed to deal with public safety and traffic related to large protests of hundreds or thousands of people.

Watson said that bylaw could not be used to address to individual protesters on the sidewalks next to the clinic, but this bill clarifies where protesters can go and how they should act.

"This gives the police the tools they need and the law they need and it's been upheld by various courts, when B.C. brought in similar 'bubble' zone legislation," he said.

'Overreach,' says anti-abortion group

The Campaign Life Coalition said the bill is using the bad actions by a few people to justify shutting down of anti-abortion activists. 

Johanne Brownrigg, the organization's federal government relations representative, said the anti-abortion movement denounces violence and harassment. She said her organization isn't connected to Winter.

"The bad behaviour of some is not reflective of the movement. So use the Criminal Code," she said.

"This is a huge overreach. This will inhibit actual peaceful, prayerful protest." 

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 the proposed safety access zone could move protesters next to a coffee shop 50 or up to 150 metres from an abortion clinic, taking protests away from their intended audience.

"It is irrelevant to be too far away," she said. "150 metres is an extraordinary distance and it's a high price to pay when you're balancing freedom of speech."

Brownrigg said the coalition's lawyers are reviewing the bill and will watch how it is implemented to consider a possible court challenge.