A recent column by the Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick indicates that the pro-choice struggle is far from over. It’s not the law getting in the way at this point, although in New Brunswick that has been the case until recently, and in some measure remains so. The issue these days is access, hampered by too few abortion facilities and by the ceaseless intimidation of vulnerable women by “pro-life” fanatics.
First, the good news: no, abortion clinics are not closing as Mallick mistakenly claims: indeed, thanks in no small part to my late friend Wendy Robbins, access is actually improving, if far too slowly. But the fetus fetishists are a live, malignant force, and can be counted upon to create misery wherever they appear.
On university campuses they show up with large gory pictures comparing abortion to the Nazi Holocaust. They shove their propaganda through letter slots. And they can also be observed within spitting distance of abortion clinics—despite “bubble zone” legislation in BC and recently in Newfoundland and Labrador that is supposed to force the harassers to remain some distance away from clinic property. Elsewhere, a patchwork quilt of by-laws and court injunctions has helped to keep them at bay—but not always effectively. In Fredericton, they are building an anti-abortion office right next door to the newly-reopened abortion clinic.
And then there’s Ottawa.
A city by-law is supposed to keep the harassers across the street from the Bank Street clinic. But somehow they have gained impunity, marching unimpeded right in front of the clinic doors to intimidate clients.
The Ottawa Police Service appears to be acting in complicity with them. Calls to the police have achieved nothing. In fact, according to the clinic’s director of operations, the cops have threatened clinic staff with arrest for daring to complain. Since when is a citizen subject to arrest for reporting lawbreaking to the police? Something smells malodorous here.
Mallick’s article, and its consequent social media uproar, have wrung a promise out of Ottawa’s glad-handing Mayor Jim Watson to investigate. A Watson sceptic, I’m not holding my breath. But let’s stay tuned.
UPDATE: Both Mayor Jim Watson and the Chief of Police have washed their hands of the matter. “It’s a grey area,” “But the Charter of Rights,” “We can’t enforce our own by-law,” that sort of squeaking can be heard from City Hall and the cop shop, while clinic staff admit they have been driven to the breaking-point by the continual harassment.
“Go get a court injunction,” says the pathologically risk-averse Mayor Watson, helpfully. Those injunctions to create “bubble zones” around abortion clinics to keep the “pro-life” predators away have been successfully sought elsewhere—in Toronto, for example—and the zones are now law in two provinces. They have proven to be effective and able to withstand Charter challenges. But here’s the thing: the Ottawa by-law that restricts picketing to the other side of the street in effect establishes just such a bubble zone. Yet the Mayor and the police chief whine and weep and claim their hands are tied.
Here are a couple of suggestions. First, test the existing by-law: enforce it, make arrests, lay charges. If the harassers find a legal hole in the wording—here’s a thought, wait for it—write and pass a new by-law. (Damn, I must be some sort of genius to have thought of that.) To repeat: we already know that bubble zones are Charter-proof: a by-law having the same effect would be as well.
By doing nothing, both City Hall and the police are taking the side of the harassers. Get hold of your city councillor, jam the Mayor’s phone lines, step up, be heard. Make their lives miserable until something is done. Join any clinic-approved demonstrations and chase the harassers away from the doors.
Push has come to shove. The public bullying of women in Ottawa must be stopped. If the cops and City Hall refuse to act, then citizens will have to do their jobs for them.
UPPERDATE: (April 25) Legal experts shred Ottawa City Hall cowardice.