Bill 9 would ban peaceful persuasion
During Tuesday’s legislative debate on the NDP’s Bill 9, the term “harass” or “harassment” was used 14 times, “intimidate” 13 times, “threat” or “threaten” five times, and “block” (as in block a doorway) four times. Such is the alleged reprehensible conduct committed by pro-life activists near abortion clinics, which the NDP government boasts it will now stop with Bill 9.
Yet five key terms in Bill 9 that define the kind of behaviour it prohibits were never used in the April 10 debate: advise, persuade, inform, disapprove and request. Bill 9 would punish, by fines and prison, “attempting to advise or persuade” someone not to have an abortion, “attempting to inform another person concerning issues related to abortion services”, communicating “disapproval [of abortion]” by any means, written, verbal, or visual, and “persistently request[ing] that another person refrain from providing” abortion. What’s new about Bill 9, its essence, is that it prohibits peaceful attempts to change a fellow citizen’s mind in that most basic and traditional of public forums, our city streets and sidewalks.
True, the bill also makes it an offence to “physically impede” a patient or abortion provider, to “intimidate or attempt to intimidate” the same, or to “engage in threatening conduct” — but this is completely redundant in view of criminal law. Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits harassment and intimidation (which can include stalking a person or impeding their free movement); assault, including uttering threats; mischief (interference with lawful use of property); nuisance endangering safety or health; and causing a public disturbance by screaming, shouting, swearing or by impeding other persons in a public place. If this is going on, you would think the police would lay a criminal charge or two.
In 2014, the United States Supreme Court, in its unanimous McCullen decision, struck down a Massachusetts “buffer zone” that was much narrower, at 10 metres, than the 50-metre-plus radius that Bill 9 would create. All nine judges rejected the state’s arguments that a buffer zone was needed because enforcing criminal laws was too difficult. The court noted that the state had not prosecuted anyone in 17 years. If the state claims there is a record of obstruction and harassment justifying a censorship law, the court pointed out, then surely it could compile evidence support prosecutions — but it hadn’t done so. The same goes for Alberta.
The way to stop harassment and threatening conduct is to monitor it, collect evidence (say, from clinic security cameras), lay charges and prosecute. That’s not happening in Alberta, either, because clinics and police are incompetent or, more likely, because harassment and intimidation are not happening. So don’t buy the rhetoric.
What Bill 9 is designed to do is quash dissent. It would silence even those who ask women on their way to an abortion clinic to consider alternatives and offer them help. The bill prohibits persuading, advising, informing and the like. Those are innocuous terms, so the NDP doesn’t use them in debate. They use criminal law terms like threaten, harass and intimidate, thus equating peaceful prolife protest with criminal conduct. That’s a dangerous game.
MLA Karen McPherson contributed this common pro-censorship talking point to last Tuesday’s debate: “I can’t imagine any other circumstance where people would think it was OK to protest somebody seeking health care. If I was going to go for a bypass… I don’t think anyone would think it was OK to have protestors outside of the hospital…” The Editorial Board of the Edmonton Journal made this point as well.
Nevermind, for argument’s sake, the equating of bypass to abortion. Can someone tell me why people shouldn’t be free to do express their opposition to bypass surgery? Why shouldn’t I respect that freedom, even if I need bypass surgery? Preventing me from getting bypass surgery by obstruction or threats would be criminal. But protest? I might think it odd. I might think such people are confused. I might find them annoying. But they should be free to express their anti-bypass surgery views. The fact that my fellow taxpayers pay for such a procedure can surely only bolster the strength of their claim to be free to express opposition to it.
In another lowlight from last Tuesday’s debate, MLA Maria Fitzpatrick argues that this law is needed because there is a double standard, by which women face protest for their choices, but not men. “I might stand outside an adult entertainment business with a sign that berates men for their choices inside this establishment,” Fitzpatrick says. But the reality is men don’t face such protest. But when women try to access the “medical procedure” of abortion, they have to face down “threats” (a criminal act) and people “trying to impose their value system on them.”
Her observation about the lack of protest of “adult entertainment business” establishments is a good one. There are plenty of good reasons to protest such places; maybe someone should. For Fitzpatrick, the solution to this double standard is to censor any disapproval of abortion or pro-life outreach near abortion centres, just to make it fair. You would think, in a free society, the solution to what Ms. Fitzpatrick considers such inequality would be to either protest the shady establishments frequented by men, or persuade the pro-life demonstrators to go home.
Could it be, just maybe, that the reason people want to silence pro-life dissent is because they know abortion is wrong and hate being reminded of it?
John Sikkema serves as Legal Counsel for the Association for Reformed Political Action in Ottawa.