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Manitoba introduces law to create protest-free zones 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 every fall, on a sidewalk outside the Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg, do not disturb anyone.

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

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

Three people stand along the side of the road, bundled in jackets, wearing signs that oppose abortions.
Maria Slykerman, right, demonstrates against the practice of abortions outside the HSC Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg in 2018. She said her group is being misrepresented in comments by the families’ minister. (Submitted/Maria Slykerman)

Slykerman said they’re sometimes approached by people who regret their abortions.

The NDP’s 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. Buffer zones around homes would be 150 metres. Providers could apply to have buffer zones around their offices as well.

Inside the zones, people would be barred 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.

NDP bill years in the making

Fontaine tried to get similar legislation passed on five separate occasions 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 the move could come in the future.

While introducing the bill, Fontaine told legislators that people would still have the right to oppose abortions elsewhere. 

“While some citizens may not agree with abortion, don’t have one,” she said, “and if folks feel the need to protest against these human rights, they’re welcome to do it here at the Manitoba Legislature.”

A person in a red shirt carries a sign that reads "Mind your own uterus."
Supporters of abortion access attend a 2022 rally outside the Manitoba Legislature, in response to the United States overturning the constitutional right to abortion. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Amanda Le Rougetel, who’s been advocating for abortion rights in Manitoba for decades, said Canadians only need to look south of the border, where the constitutional right to abortion was overturned in 2022, to realize women’s rights are under threat.

“This legislation that’s being introduced is being proactive and is saying, ‘Hey, we are going to protect the rights that exist. We’re going to enable people to access a safe legal medical procedure,'” she told guest host Chloe Friesen on CBC Manitoba’s Up to Speed

The Archdiocese of Winnipeg said in a prepared statement it has “some concerns” about the proposed legislation, but it didn’t specify any further. 

“We steadfastly promote and advocate for the sanctity and respect of life from conception to natural death,” the statement said.

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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