Canada swiftly passes bill to protect abortion seekers, eager to set itself apart from the U.S.

Similar measures have failed in the United States, as incidents of violence against abortion clinics mount.

Confrontation at anti-abortion protest rally (CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)
Confrontation at anti-abortion protest rally (CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

A province in Canada voted Wednesday to create abortion clinic “safe zones”, protecting individuals seeking abortions from potential harassment by anti-choice protesters.

The legislation would create 50-meter bubbles outside abortion clinics and prohibit protesters from targeting clinic workers or their homes. The Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the bill with a near unanimous vote, with only one lawmaker voting against the measure. It became law the same day.

Following the bill’s passage, Minister of the Status of Women Indira Naidoo-Harris said in a statement, “Women in Ontario will finally have safe and equal access to abortion services, free from harassment, bullying or violence. This act demonstrates our government’s commitment to the security, equality and empowerment of women in Ontario.”

Other Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, Quebec and Newfoundland, and Labrador already have abortion safe zone laws in place.

The bill’s track to becoming law took less than a month, from the time it was first read in the legislature to Wednesday, when it passed. But Canada’s road to protecting abortion-seekers has been a long one.

Carolyn Egan, spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, told ThinkProgress that Canada’s fight for reproductive rights reached a peak in the 1980s, when police stormed a then-illegal abortion clinic and inadvertently made it a symbol of women’s resistance. The incident led to a Canadian Supreme Court decision in 1988, which struck down a law mandating that abortions be performed solely in hospitals.

“That was the basis that we felt really built a broad movement,” Egan said. “We have an anti-choice movement here, but it’s not as broad [as the United States] … Generally, people support a woman’s right to choose.”

Still, Egan added, Canada has experienced its fair share of violence against abortion clinics. Recently, protesters have become more assertive, she said, as they are “being emboldened by what’s going on in the United States … It has given confidence to those who want to take away a woman’s right to have an abortion.”

Egan said the bill’s swift passage and all-party support, which are typically rare, were partly due to an effort to separate Canada from the United States.

“The governments do see what’s happening in the U.S. and they’re taking a very different position than that,” she said.

Over the years, similar measures to protect abortion-seekers have failed in the United States. In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled, on First Amendment grounds, a Massachusetts law that would prohibit protests within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. The law was enacted after repeated incidents of intimidation and violence at the state’s abortion clinics, including an incident in 1994, when a gunman opened fire at two abortion clinics in Brookline, killing two receptionists and injuring five others.

Massachusetts is not alone in its history of violence. The National Abortion Federation reports that, since 1977, eight abortion clinic workers from various states throughout the country have been killed. During the same time period, there have been more than 6,400 incidents of violence and aggression against abortion clinics, including bombings, arsons, kidnappings, stalking, and acid attacks. More recently, a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado in November 2015 left three dead and nine others injured.

While there are no U.S. states with laws establishing static buffer zones around abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute, three states — Colorado, Massachusetts, and Montana — have instituted protected “bubble zones” around individuals within a set distance of a clinic.

For Egan, the Ontario law was a long time coming. “It feels good,” she said. “Collective struggle can actually win. That’s what I take from it.”