Last week, Attorney General of Ontario Yasir Naqvi announced the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act — a bill that, if passed, would no longer permit anti-abortion protests within a certain distance of abortion clinics, the homes of abortion providers, or pharmacies that sell pregnancy-terminating medications. The bill — partly motivated by an incident earlier in the year outside an abortion clinic in Ottawa, wherein a woman was spit on — would prevent any anti-abortion demonstrations within 50 metres of these facilities. The buffer zone could be expanded to up to 150 metres by ministerial order.
This idea has undeniably noble motives. It is crucial that women can access abortion services without being subjected to intimidation or harassment. There’s no question that being subjected to protesters may make a difficult situation even more difficult. However, disallowing all protests, without discriminating between those that are intimidating and those that are peaceful, is not the way forward.
The problem with this type of legislation is that it does not distinguish between protest that becomes violent and protest that remains civil. Although the government has every right, and indeed a strong responsibility, to protect women from harassment, the right to free assembly prohibits it from protecting women from protest itself.
No matter how unpopular a view may be, there should always be room within the law to express that view in a peaceful, non-intimidating, and non-harassing demonstration. There must be a legal basis for a citizen to stand in the public square with a sign or a placard or a chant and demonstrate peacefully. The despicable acts of a handful of fanatics do not justify collapsing this foundational democratic principle.
It is true that pro-life demonstrations can still be held outside the prescribed distance from abortion clinics and pharmacies. However, it doesn’t follow from this that the right to protest has not been seriously infringed: the right to protest needs to entail the right to protest effectively.
The last few months have seen several high-profile protests, including the Women’s March in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration and the protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Disruption of the institutions being protested was a central objective of these popular movements. The Women’s March blocked major streets and public spaces in numerous cities and towns worldwide. At Standing Rock, some protesters literally tied themselves to construction equipment, making their physical bodies an obstacle to the project they opposed.
Protesters need the capacity to disrupt and disturb. It would not have been right to relegate these protests to other locations, constraining them to where they would do the least damage and robbing them of their capacity for impact. Disruptiveness, as long as there is no violence, is not justification for stifling protest. Without the capacity to meaningfully disrupt, a protest has almost no purpose at all.
That being said, even without outright harassment, the presence of the protesters, from the perspective of a woman seeking an abortion, can make an already difficult situation even harder. Many women who get abortions are likely already subjected to an unjust amount of shame and fear, and there are enough obstacles preventing them from getting the care they may need. This is an undoubtedly important point. According to Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director of the pro-choice advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights, “Supporting reproductive rights requires governments to recognize the intersecting barriers individuals face when trying to access health care.” Prasad is right. We need to be sensitive to the challenges that women already face when trying to access reproductive care, and we need to be careful not to add another.
However, the possibility that a protest may prevent women from getting an abortion cannot be a reason to prevent a protest from taking place. We can’t prevent a protest because that protest is peacefully achieving its objective. As wrong as the ideology behind the protest may be, the fact that it might successfully do so cannot be a reason to make it illegal; the right to protest needs to apply equally to all points of view.
There is no ‘right to protest insofar as the government supports your position.’ There is no ‘right to protest as long as your protest doesn’t actually make a difference.’ The right to protest needs to be blind to content, ideology, and perspective. Fundamental rights don’t have normative qualifiers.
Women should not be harassed by protesters, and we should make sure that laws prohibiting harassment and intimidation effectively prevent that from happening. But the right to peaceful demonstration is sacred, and it cannot be forestalled because it might work, regardless of how destructive that result may be.
And that right cuts both ways. Pro-choice and women’s rights advocacy groups can provide women the support they need by lobbying for public information campaigns about reproductive health, pushing for more expansive sex education, and making contraception free and accessible. Just because people have the right to protest abortion doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, openly oppose their point of view.
Measures should be taken to protect women from harassment and intimidation by protesters. It seems only sensible that this issue should be addressed by tightening existent laws against harassment and intimidation by protesters, or creating new ones, rather than by infringing the right to protest.
Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.