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Canada Nov 7, 2017

Catholics, pro-lifers scramble in wake of Ontario 'bubble zone' law

By Michael Swan

Jim Hughes (left), president Campaign Life Coalition, and Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast have expressed dismay over Ontario's new "bubble zone" legislation. (Via The Catholic Register)

TORONTO (CCN)—Ontario’s bubble zone legislation has Catholic lawyers pondering courtroom strategy, Ottawa’s archbishop worrying about the annual March for Life, and a pro-life counselling service looking for a new location.

The legislation, which will ban protest, prayer, and sidewalk counselling within a 50-metre zone outside Ontario’s eight abortion clinics, passed almost unanimously Oct. 25. A single opposing vote came from Trillium Party MPP Jack MacLaren, while a handful of objecting legislators from the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties were absent for the vote.

Bill 163 sped through all three readings and one day of hearings in less than two weeks. The bill becomes an enforceable law once the government publishes associated regulations determining details, such as precisely where the 50-metre zones begin and end.

Other facilities, such as hospitals providing abortions as well as pharmacies that dispense emergency abortion pills will be able to apply for similar bubble zone protection.

In a submission to the Standing Committee on General Government Oct. 19, the Catholic Civil Rights League argued the legislation is unconstitutional.

“Political protest is a hallmark of democracy. Dissent is a feature of authentic pluralism,” CCRL president Phil Horgan argued before the committee. “Courts take a dim view of limitations of such measures intended to stifle free speech.”

The eventual court challenge could take the form of a Charter of Rights application launched on behalf of an “affected party,” Horgan wrote in an email. The alternative would be to wait for a protester to be charged and then argue the constitutionality of the law as part of the protester’s defence.

As a result of the ban on sidewalk counselling or distributing anti-abortion literature near an abortion clinic, the Aid To Women counselling service plans to move its operation from the second floor down to street level in its rented building next door to the Cabbagetown Women’s Clinic on Gerrard Street, east of downtown Toronto.

The move will take a couple of months and require considerable renovations and fundraising, an Aid To Women counsellor said. Aid To Women safety policy prevents its employees from publicizing their last names.

“That will allow us more visibility and hopefully will invite more women to seek our help,” said an Aid To Women Facebook post that went up as Bill 163 was passing.

“All freedoms are threatened when the state mutes selected opinions about a pressing social and moral issues,” Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast wrote in his regular Ottawa Sun column Oct. 28. “You should be profoundly concerned about the disproportionate scope of this law, whether or not you support abortions.”

Disturbances in and near the Bank Street abortion clinic which were used to justify the bubble zone law have been exaggerated and misreported, Archbishop Prendergast said.

“The police should deal with people who are causing problems under the current laws that prohibit trespassing, harassment, and assault. They should not prevent peaceful and respectful protest.”

The archbishop raised the possibility that the new law effectively makes the annual March For Life, 40 Days for Life, Life Chain, and other peaceful protests illegal.

“How free is our province if advocates for its most vulnerable are literally denied access to the public square?” Archbishop Prendergast asked.

The Catholic Civil Rights League calls the new law “a solution to a non-existing problem.” The government has failed to show that protest, sidewalk counselling, and vigils near abortion clinics have prevented anyone from accessing the service, according to the CCRL.

“Bubble zone legislation isn’t about protecting women and abortion staff workers from violence, because there is no evidence of such violence. This is about silencing peaceful pro-life witnessing and preventing women from having access to alternatives,” Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes said in a press release.

In Ottawa, 40 Days for Life protesters are being urged not to provoke a confrontation with police.

“Because it is now illegal for us to gather and hold a sign in front of the abortuary on Bank Street, and I don’t want to put anyone in a position of having a confrontation with the police,” 40 Days for Life Ottawa co-ordinator Wanda Hartlin wrote in an email to members of her organization. “I am asking that you continue to fast and pray until the end of the campaign on Nov. 5, but not on Bank Street.

The Catholic Register