Abortion rights group welcomes federal law protecting health facilities from protesters but says it’s “way overdue”

For immediate release

NATIONAL – The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) welcomes the Jan 17 announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that it is now illegal to intimidate healthcare workers and patients, or obstruct them from providing care or seeking treatment at locations where healthcare services are delivered.

Although the new criminal law was triggered by the aggressive actions of anti-vaccine protesters outside health facilities and COVID-19 vaccination sites, the law applies to protesters at any healthcare facility, including those that provide abortion.

“We hope this new criminal law will give more protection to patients who need abortion and medical staff who care for them, especially in regions of the country that don’t have provincial safe access zone laws,” said Joyce Arthur, Executive Director of ARCC.

Six provinces have safe access zones that prohibit protesters from being within a designated zone around abortion clinics, as well as some hospitals and pharmacies that provide abortion. BC was the first province to pass a law in 1995. It went through court challenges and was upheld as constitutional in 2008. Newfoundland/Labrador became the second province to pass an almost identical law to BC’s in 2016, followed soon after by Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and Nova Scotia.

“The new federal law provides for greater penalties for intimidation and obstruction than the existing provincial laws. Also, it should deter abortion protesters in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where recent efforts to pass safe access zone laws for abortion facilities have not yet succeeded,” said Arthur.

“Protesters have been causing distress to staff and patients at abortion care facilities since the 1980’s. It was a long and difficult struggle to get these provincial laws passed. While we’re happy to see this federal law, it’s way overdue. We needed a law like this decades ago,” said Arthur.

“Most people can clearly see that anti-vaccine protesters outside health facilities cause harm and should be held accountable. But the same has always been true for anti-choice protesters outside abortion clinics. Protecting people’s right to access or provide essential healthcare without intimidation should be a no-brainer – regardless of the service or who needs it.”

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BACKGROUND: Key differences between the federal law and the provincial statutes:

Location: The federal law automatically covers any place in Canada that provides healthcare.  The provincial laws are limited mostly to private abortion clinics and the offices of abortion providers. Hospitals and other facilities that provide abortions are generally not protected unless they apply for a zone.

Homes: The provincial laws create buffer zones around providers’ homes (except in Quebec).  The federal law prohibits intimidation regardless of location, which would appear to protect homes of patients, healthcare workers, and those who support them.

Prohibited activity: The provincial laws prohibit the mere presence of protesters within the zones (in addition to intimidation, harassment, and threats). With the exception of Quebec’s law, they also ban recording anything that occurs in the zone, as well as repeated communications to providers/patients in order to “dissuade” them.
The federal law criminalizes only “intimidation” and “obstruction”, including threats and assaults. It also allows these offences to be “aggravated factors” so that judges can increase the penalties.

Penalties: The federal law provides for prison terms of up to 10 years for an offence.  The provincial laws impose fines and/or a prison term of up to six months and up to one year for subsequent offences. (The Quebec law levies fines only.)

Size of zones: The provincial laws establish specific zones around abortion facilities (or homes/offices) that protesters cannot enter, ranging in size from 10M to 150M depending on the location. The federal law does not require measured buffer zones at health facilities.

Media Contacts:

Joyce ArthurExecutive Director / Directrice générale, ARCC-CDAC, Vancouverjoyce@arcc-cdac.ca604-351-0867
Carolyn EganOntario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, Torontoc.egan@sympatico.ca 416-806-7985
Tasia AlexopoulosARCC-CDAC, New Brunswicktasia@arcc-cdac.ca 
Christopher Kaposy, PhDEthicist, Memorial University / Éthicien, Université Memorial, St. Johns NL / T.-N.christopher.kaposy@med.mun.ca709-864-3375 (w / bur.)
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