Ontario law offers buffer-zone blueprint

There’s a popular aphorism that often comes up in discussion of rights and freedoms: “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/11/2018 (1531 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a popular aphorism that often comes up in discussion of rights and freedoms: “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”

It’s a saying that came to mind again last week, after NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine introduced a bill that would limit protests immediately surrounding facilities that provide abortions. The proposed Bill 200 (Safe Access to Abortion Services Act) would mimic legislation already in place in British Columbia and Ontario by providing a buffer zone around clinics and hospitals to help mitigate harassment of health-care providers and patients seeking abortions.

Premier Brian Pallister’s response predictably raised the spectre of threats to freedom of speech, echoing similar responses made in jurisdictions around the world that have introduced buffer-zone legislation.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine introduced a bill that would limit protests immediately surrounding facilities that provide abortions. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“We have to be awfully, awfully careful when we take away people’s freedoms and rights,” he said Friday. “This is the kind of proposal that would do exactly that.”

The premier is operating under the false belief that freedom of expression guarantees a right to a captive audience, as well as the notion that protest is not harassment unless it includes such things as physical violence or stalking.

Of course, there are legal means to deal with the latter criminal acts, but setting aside the fact that securing injunctions against individual transgressors is time-consuming, complicated and potentially traumatic for those involved, what Mr. Pallister fails to recognize is that even if protesters do not scream at, spit on or assault women or workers (and make no mistake, some do), their mere presence, hindering women’s free access to a public health building, is a form of harassment. No one should be expected to run a gauntlet to seek medical treatment of any kind, nor should health workers be expected to face hurdles to accessing their jobs safely.

Ontario’s Safe Access to Abortion Services Act 2017 is very clear on what constitutes “safe access,” and it is by no means limited to either physical or verbal abuse.

The act advises that, within the prescribed buffer zone, no person shall “advise or persuade, or attempt to advise or persuade, a person to refrain from accessing abortion services; inform or attempt to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services, by any means, including oral, written or graphic means; perform or attempt to perform an act of disapproval concerning issues related to abortion services, by any means, including oral, written or graphic means.”

Legally shifting such actions further away from clinics and hospitals in no way curtails any attempts to express a belief or opinion; groups who say otherwise must admit that their motives likely go beyond expression to coercion.

International religious anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life holds an annual campaign of picketing and prayer in front of the Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It’s worth noting that Winnipeg bylaws forbid panhandlers from obstructing or impeding the convenient passage of any pedestrian traffic on public streets, sidewalks and rights of way, where even a peaceable transaction can be perceived as intimidation.

The purpose of international religious anti-abortion groups such as 40 Days for Life, which recently wrapped up its annual campaign of picketing and prayer in front of the Women’s Hospital, is not to engage in public debate about the merits of abortion, but to actively prevent it — the organization keeps a running tally of “lives saved” on its website — using shame and guilt, as well as dubious health information, on women who may be feeling vulnerable.

Bill 200 would allow citizens to believe whatever they wish and freely express those beliefs — as long as they do it 150 metres from the doorway of a hospital or clinic, where women’s freedom from coercion or influence over their bodily autonomy begins.

History

Updated on Thursday, November 29, 2018 9:29 AM CST: Corrects that Winnipeg bylaw affecting panhandling does not stipulate buffer zones

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