Anti-abortion protesters will now face arrest if they come within 50 metres of the Vancouver Island Women’s Clinic in View Royal after the province passed new regulations to protect women from harassment and intimidation.
The “bubble zone” around the clinic has been expanded from the existing 10-metre radius, a move the Ministry of Health said will help to protect the dignity and privacy of the clinic’s staff and patients.
“It’s absolutely the case that women seeking abortion services and health services have to be allowed to do that in an intimidation-free environment,” Health Minister Adrian Dix told the Times Colonist. “It doesn’t take away anyone’s right to express their views, but it does ensure the privacy, the dignity and the safety of both staff and patients.”
In the last year and a half, anti-abortion campaigners supporting a U.S.-based group called 40 Days for Life began making their presence known outside the clinic, which provides abortions and other health services, said Dawn Fowler, the clinic’s executive director.
The most recent 40-day protest took place in March and April.
“We would hear from our staff that they felt fearful, intimidated, bullied,” Fowler said. “And patients would come in and say they’re doing nothing wrong but they feel harassed and intimidated by the protesters.”
In previous years, the clinic has had nails scattered across its parking lot and Fowler found a bloody surgical glove on the windshield of her car outside her home. The clinic regularly gets hate mail.
The clinic reached out to Island Health and former NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis to petition the then-Liberal government to expand the bubble zone.
Karagianis’s successor, Mitzi Dean, who is also the NDP’s parliamentary secretary for gender equity, took up the cause when the NDP came into power and the request was granted.
Four other clinics in B.C. have a 50-metre bubble zone.
People who protest in the zones can be arrested without a warrant.
“Everybody should be allowed to protest, that’s not the issue,” Fowler said.
“But people also need to be able to go to work in a safe environment and they need to access health care in a safe environment.”
In 1995, B.C. passed the Access to Abortion Services Act, the first piece of legislation in Canada that laid out zones where protesting would be prohibited.
The legislation created intimidation-free access zones of 10 metres around the offices of doctors who provide abortion services and 160 metres around their homes. The legislation allows for a 50-metre zone around facilities where abortion services are provided, but this must be enacted by regulation on a case-by-case basis.
Alberta recently passed similar legislation, bringing it in line with B.C., Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec.
“Everyone has the right to be free from intimidation and harassment, especially when they are accessing or providing health-care services,” Dean said in a statement.
“Expanding this access zone will remove a barrier to care, and help ensure women can access the services they need.”
Abortion services are publicly funded through the Medical Services Plan.