NDP legislation tabled Thursday forces protesters to stay at least 50 metres away from Alberta abortion clinics and prohibits them from taking unwanted photos or videos.
If approved, Bill 9 — called the Protecting Choice for Women Accessing Health Care Act — would bring Alberta in line with other provinces including British Columbia and Ontario.
Women shouldn’t be subject to intimidation, harassment or bullying when they access legal health-care services, said Health Minister Sarah Hoffman at a news conference.
“I would like to have (the rules) in place as quickly as physically possible,” she said.
Two clinics that perform more than 75 per cent of the province’s abortions are protected under the legislation. They currently rely on court injunctions to prevent protesters from approaching patients or employees.
But Kim Cholewa, clinic manager at Woman’s Health Options in Edmonton, said court orders are largely ineffective. Police ask protesters to move along, only for them to return.
“It is a great day for women who need this. They have been struggling for a very long time,” she said, visibly emotional. “It’s about time.
“I think bubble zones across the country have been helping.”
Staff at her clinic, as well as at the Kensington Clinic in Calgary, have noticed a ramping up of anti-abortion protests in recent years.
“We have had patients that have not been able to get out of the car,” she said, adding protesters have sometimes stood next to the driver’s car door to block the way.
Protesters face up to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail for a first offence under Bill 9. There are harsher penalties for subsequent offences, including fines up to $10,000 and one year in prison.
Taking photos and videos of patients or staff within the zone are banned unless consent is given. That applies to recordings taken by protesters while they are standing outside the zone.
Doctors and staff can request extended buffer zones up to 160 metres for their homes or 20 metres for an office.
But the proposed rules don’t apply to protesters on private property, meaning that anti-abortion centres located within 50 metres of clinics or offices won’t need to move. That’s the case for The Back Porch, an anti-abortion centre across the street from Cholewa’s clinic.
The Wilberforce Project, an anti-abortion group, said harassment and intimidation isn’t a problem outside abortion clinics.
“Minister Hoffman suggesting otherwise is simply false,” executive director Stephanie Fennelly said in a statement.
She also said the legislation infringes on freedom of speech.
“We don’t ban animal rights demonstrators from gathering on public property outside of the (Calgary) Stampede, so why should we ban pro-lifers from gathering on public property outside of a clinic?”
The pro-choice organization Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights lauded the bill.
“There is ample evidence that shows how anti-choice harassment and intimidation is a serious problem throughout the country and that access-zone legislation works to protect patients, practitioners and their staff,” said executive director Sandeep Prasad in a statement.
The official Opposition hasn’t commented on the legislation.
“As with all legislation tabled in the assembly, our caucus will take the necessary time to thoroughly review and discuss the bill before making further comment,” said spokeswoman Annie Dormuth in a statement.