Manitoba plans buffer zones to restrict protests near abortion clinics

The Manitoba government plans to restrict protests near clinics and hospitals where abortions are performed, as well as at the homes of abortion providers.

The NDP government introduced a bill Thursday that, if passed, would create “buffer zones” of 50 metres to 150 metres around related health facilities and staff homes.

Several provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, already have similar laws in place.

“I think it’s important to recognize that governments have a responsibility to protect Manitobans that are seeking to access health care,” Families Minister Nahanni Fontaine said.

Fontaine said some people entering hospitals and clinics over the years have been blocked, accosted or photographed by anti-abortion protesters.

But the president of the Manitoba chapter of Campaign Life Coalition said the group’s actions, on a sidewalk outside the Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg, do not disturb anyone.

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“I got a group of people that take turns … all they do is pray the rosary,” Maria Slykerman said.

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“We don’t talk to these women unless they come to us.”

The bill would create buffer zones of at least 50 metres from the edge of the property of a clinic or hospital. The distance could later be increased to as much as 150 metres by the government cabinet. Buffer zones around homes would be 150 metres. Providers could apply to have buffer zones around their offices as well.

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Inside the zones, people would be forbidden from a variety of actions including attempting to “advise or persuade a person to refrain from accessing abortion services,” to block access, and to provide information about abortion-related issues.

British Columbia’s law was the subject of a legal challenge more than a decade ago by opponents who said it violated their Charter right to freedom of expression. But the court upheld the law as a justifiable limit.

Fontaine had tried to get similar legislation passed while the New Democrats were in Opposition, but did not get support from the Progressive Conservative government of the time.

Her previous attempts included a plan to have buffer zones around schools as well. That has been dropped.

“We took that out to ensure … that we’re in line with other jurisdictions,” Fontaine said, adding that the move could come in the future.

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Now in government with a solid majority in the legislature, the NDP could pass the bill before summer. Tory families critic Lauren Stone said Thursday she would not comment on the bill until she has time to go through it.

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