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Women visiting Ottawa’s Morgentaler abortion clinic need a provincial law to protect them from being harassed by protesters, Mayor Jim Watson says.
Staff at the clinic at the north end of Bank Street complain that patients are pestered by anti-abortion activists holding placards and sometimes yelling slogans, and that the city’s done too little to deal with it.
Abortion is a publicly funded medical service and protesters opposing it fall into a tricky legal zone, with constitutionally protected rights to free expression and assembly. Short of stationing police at the clinic permanently, enforcing laws against harassment, mischief or assault in specific cases is difficult.
But, Watson wrote in a Tuesday letter to Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, who’s also the MPP for Ottawa Centre, it should be simpler.
A 1994 court injunction created “500-metre bubble zones” that forbid anti-abortion protests outside 23 hospitals and clinics in Ontario where abortions were performed then, most particularly at Toronto’s Morgentaler clinic, where most such protests were centred.
The injunction doesn’t apply to Ottawa’s standalone abortion clinic, which wasn’t open at the time. The injunction should be turned into an Ontario-wide Access to Abortion Services Act that applies everywhere, Watson wrote.
“I am hoping that you will agree that the concerns that moved the Ontario government to action for the people of Toronto in 1994, are no less pressing than they are today, for the people of Ottawa,” the mayor wrote.
Though he agrees that “all women across Ontario should have access to safe health care services,” Naqvi replied in a statement, he isn’t sure about a new law.
“Over the past several weeks, my ministry has been working to determine what options are available to the province in order to ensure that harassment at the Morgentaler clinic, and clinics across the province does not continue. I will have more to say once I have determined the best course of action,” Naqvi wrote.
The legislature only has four sitting days left before it breaks until mid-September, so it’s all but impossible any law could be passed until autumn. In the meantime, the city could step up police enforcement or pass a bylaw creating a bubble zone of its own — but one with less legal force than one in provincial law.
Rick O’Connor, the city’s top lawyer, wrote in an assessment of city council’s options that although Ottawa could use municipal bylaws against clinic protesters, the punishment for a violation would be limited to fines and an order from a judge to lay off. It would take repeated incidents involving the same person before punishments escalated.
“Bylaw enforcement through ticketing cannot provide the same immediate resolution of situations of serious harassment, threats or intimidation — nor can it offer the same level of deterrent effect — as exists where enforcement can be undertaken by means of arrest and the possibility of imprisonment,” O’Connor wrote, answering a formal inquiry from Watson and Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney about what the city could do.
British Columbia has a law like the one O’Connor recommends and it was recently copied by Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Ontario government, which sought and got the 1994 injunction in the first place when Bob Rae was premier, could also ask a court to add Ottawa’s abortion clinic to the list of places with anti-protest bubble zones. That could be quicker than passing a law though it would be less flexible.