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Ontario tables far-reaching ban on anti-abortion protests

Anti-abortion protesters at an Ottawa rally in 2015.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ontario's government is proposing to create some of North America's most far-reaching rules limiting anti-abortion protests with plans to enforce wide safe zones around abortion clinics, hospitals and the homes of health-care workers who perform the procedure.

Protests within 50 metres of Ontario's abortion clinics would be automatically banned, according to a bill introduced in the province's legislature by Attorney General Yasir Naqvi on Wednesday. Clinics, hospitals and pharmacies that provide the procedure or the abortion pill Mifegymiso could also apply for a so-called safe-access zone of up to 150 metres. Staff at health-care facilities that provide abortion services would automatically receive a 150-metre safe zone around their homes.

"The idea is simple, women should have free and easy access to these clinics without somebody stopping them or subjecting them to imagery that could be very traumatic and disturbing," Mr. Naqvi told reporters on Wednesday at a community clinic in downtown Toronto.

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Anyone violating a safe zone would face a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in jail for a first offence. Penalties for subsequent offences could see fines increase to $10,000 and up to a year in jail.

Rules restricting protest around abortion clinics have existed in Canada for decades under a patchwork of temporary court injunctions. However, a number of provinces have legislated permanent bans, including British Columbia, Quebec, as well as Newfoundland and Labrador. While the rules differ between provinces in terms of the size of safe zones and penalties, Ontario's proposal would create one of the most expansive and harshest regimes against protest.

Ontario is aiming to create safe zones around abortion clinics and the homes of staff who provide the service. Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said Wednesday the move will ensure women have 'free access' to the clinics. The Canadian Press

While there won't be signs demarcating the edge of each safe zone, Mr. Naqvi said his office has reached out to Ontario's chiefs of police for ideas because local officers will be responsible for informing would-be protesters about the myriad safe zones created by the bill and enforcing them.

Mr. Naqvi said "action was needed" and the bill was quickly written after a series of incidents in Ottawa earlier this year at the Morgentaler Clinic, including one where a woman walking into the clinic was spat on. There have been a growing number of reports about anti-abortion protests across the province that have prevented women from accessing clinics, he said, adding that the protests put the safety and privacy of patients and workers at risk.

"While I strongly support everyone's fundamental right to freedom of expression, our laws must balance that right with keeping people safe," he said.

Sarah Hobbs Blyth, executive director of Planned Parenthood Toronto, said the zones will help ensure safe access to legal abortion services. Some of the patients at her office have been upset after they've had to walk through protesters.

"People's right to health care trumps somebody's ability to protest in front of that health-care facility," she said. "This legislation is very strong in protecting our provider's rights to perform a legal procedure."

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The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said the issue of safe zones caused one of the group's most difficult debates after the zones were created in that province. The association eventually supported the law.

After Ontario's bill was proposed on Wednesday, the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition said the legislation violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by squashing free speech. "This is about silencing peaceful pro-life witnessing and preventing women from having access to alternatives," the group said in a statement.

Progressive-Conservative Leader Patrick Brown accused the government of looking to reopen a divisive issue. "Kathleen Wynne has an agenda. That agenda is to reopen debates about divisive social issues. No one wants this. I don't want it," he said.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story on Ontario tabling a ban on anti-abortion protests incorrectly said the The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said the issue of safe zones caused one of the group's most difficult debates after the zones were created in that province and that it eventually opposed the law on the grounds that it would do little to protect privacy or encourage safety. In fact, the association eventually supported the law. This is a corrected version.
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