Invisible 'safe zones' around abortion clinics have a tangible impact on patients and providers

Protesters may not be physically blocking people from accessing these services, but their presence and their interference at the doors of health facilities act as enormous psychological barriers, which can sometimes lead patients to delay care.

Alberta is the latest province to prohibit protesting within a certain distance of an abortion clinic

Protesters might not be physically blocking people from accessing these services, but their presence and their interference often act as enormous psychological barriers. (CBC)

The Alberta government took an important and long-necessary step to address the safety of patients and abortion providers last month by passing Bill 9, which creates no-protest zones around abortion clinics. In effect, this bill protects patients' right to make decisions about their own bodies and to access abortion services without fear of interference, intimidation or harassment.

We talk to thousands of people across the country through our Action Canada access line and get a regular glimpse into the realities people face when seeking abortion services. Over the years, we've supported Albertans who've been given false information online and in so-called "crisis pregnancy centres" about where to access abortion, about the "risky nature" of the procedure and about what services are available to whom.

We've also supported Albertans who've been shouted at by strangers when trying to access the procedure, and others who are being phoned daily by those same pregnancy centres, which are often mistaken for clinics, where staff are now trying to dissuade them from their decision to access abortion. These tactics, which also include picketing in front of health care centres and direct intimidation on the street, create barriers that impact people's health and their access to reproductive care.

Mental health implications

People have a right to accurate, evidence-based information to make health care decisions. And when they are intimidated or shamed for a choice they've made – a choice that is safe, legal and right for them – it can have significant consequences in terms of their mental health.

Crossing a picket line to enter a health facility is no small thing. It can delay seeking care, which has serious public health implications, and weighs heavily especially on those from small communities where people know one another and risk being outed for a procedure that still carries so much social stigma.

Anti-choice activity also impacts health care providers, who play a fundamental role in ensuring that people can access the services to which they are entitled. The new legislation not only allows for "safe zones" to be established around clinics and facilities that offer abortion services, but also creates the potential for safe zones around the homes of clinic staff and other regulated service providers.

Similar legislation creating safe zones around abortion providers has passed in other provinces including Ontario, B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec. In Alberta, protesters will have to stand at least 50 metres away while demonstrating, and may be subject to penalties including arrest, a fine or even possible jail time for violating the rules.

Along with acknowledging the importance of safeguarding patients and providers, this measure recognizes the changing landscape of abortion care in Alberta, which, since 2017, has included cost coverage for the abortion pill, Mifegymiso. Since the rollout of Mifegymiso coverage, Alberta has seen increased uptake in abortion services in its rural and remote areas.

This doesn't necessarily mean that more people are seeking abortion; it means that those who choose abortion can access the pill without having to travel – sometimes hundreds of kilometres – for the procedure. Cost coverage of Mifegymiso provides an option for people outside of city centres like Calgary and Edmonton, and this new legislation protects the safety of those patients and providers also since safe zones can be created around pharmacies and their staff.

Psychological barriers

While people do have the right to freedom of expression, their protests cannot interfere with the right to seek health services, including abortion care. Protesters might not be physically blocking people from accessing these services, but their presence and their interference at the doors of health facilities act as enormous psychological barriers.

This isn't about "stoking divisions," as some have suggested. People are still free to hold personal beliefs and to share those beliefs. This is about addressing anti-choice activities that create real barriers to health care, that threaten patient safety and that interfere with others people's freedom to make choices about their own bodies — the choices that are right for them.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Sandeep Prasad is Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. Pam Krause is President and CEO of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.


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