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B.C. court upholds abortion bubble-zone law

British Columbia's highest court has dismissed a constitutional challenge of the province's controversial "bubble-zone law," which restricts protesters around abortion clinics.

Two anti-abortion protesters went to the B.C. Appeal Court claiming the law infringed on their freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Gordon Watson and Donald Spratt also claimed the no-protest zone, which ranges in width but keeps protests about 30 metres from clinics, was unnecessarily large.

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The pair were charged in 1998 for breaking the Access to Abortion Services Act by engaging in "sidewalk interference" with women entering a Vancouver clinic.

The men were convicted in both provincial and B.C. Supreme Court and then took their challenge to the B.C. Appeal Court.

The three Appeal Court judges were unanimous in ruling that while the right to protest against abortion is protected, the object of the bubble-zone law is to protect vulnerable women and that justifies limiting protesters' rights.

"The objective of the Act justifies the limited infringement of freedom of expression in the circumstances," Justice Catherine Ryan said in a written ruling handed down Thursday.

Jill Doctoroff, executive director of the Elizabeth Bagshaw Women's Clinic in Vancouver, said staff at the clinic were "absolutely thrilled" by the decision.

The B.C. government brought in the law in 1995 after an escalating series of protests around the Bagshaw and Everywoman's Health clinics.

Protesters outside the clinics carried graphic signs, blocked the sidewalks and access and conducted so-called sidewalk counselling to try and dissuade women entering the clinic from getting an abortion.

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But it was the November 1994 shooting and near-death of Vancouver abortion provider Dr. Garson Romalis that spurred the government to action.

Dr. Romalis was sitting at his breakfast table when he was shot by someone outside his house. The bullet shattered the bone in his leg and severed an artery.

American anti-abortion activist James Kopp is suspected in the shooting of Dr. Romalis, as well as the shootings of Dr. Hugh Short in the elbow at his home in Ancaster, Ont., in 1995, and Dr. Jack Fainman in the shoulder at his home in Winnipeg in 1997.

Mr. Kopp is serving a life sentence for the murder of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian of Amherst, N.Y., after saying he shot the father of four to stop him from performing abortions.

Following the Dr. Romalis shooting, the B.C. government created a criminal harassment unit to investigate threats made to physicians and patients. That unit recommended more injunctions against abortion protesters and legislation.

Ms. Doctoroff said there was concern that the appeal court would strike down the law and staff and clients would have to go back to facing what she called "intimidation techniques" from protesters.

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"Obviously for the patients that can be intimidating," Ms. Doctoroff said. "They've made a decision to have a legal, medical procedure. They want to be able to carry that out with privacy, with respect and with dignity."

Neither Mr. Watson nor Mr. Spratt were available for comment.

The court noted in its ruling that the right to express opposition to abortion is a constitutionally protected right, but that right is not violated by the provincial legislation.

"The object of the Act is to protect vulnerable women and those who provide for their care to have safe, unimpeded access to health care services," Judge Ryan said in her ruling.

The court also rejected the argument that the no-go zone around one of the clinics was too large.

"It is not the business of the court to fine tune the area around the clinic in which protest is banned unless the size of the area can be said to amount to a constitutional impairment," Judge Ryan wrote.

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