Anyone going by LeMarchant Road has seen the anti-choice protesters that have gathered around the Athena Health Centre, the only private abortion clinic in St. John’s.
For the past 26 years, patients have had to get by these people to enter the clinic. “For most people, it’s really disturbing to see protesters … we’ve always had complaints from patients coming in and out of our old building,” said Rolanda Ryan, who has owned the clinic since 2010 – previously known as the Morgentaler Clinic.
Many clients would ask if there was a way to bypass the protestors. And while the clinic’s original location had a ‘secret’ entrance through St. Clare’s parking garage, in November 2015 the clinic relocated down the street. “Once we moved over here, very quickly it became evident that things got worse.” Protestors were now right on the doorstep.
Ryan was even more alarmed when a protester showed up with a GoPro-like camera attached to a board in May. While the protestors claimed it was only to record their own activity, photos pose a serious threat to people going in and out of the clinic. Even if done accidentally, there’s “A very real possibility if you take pictures of somebody going into an abortion clinic and post them anywhere on social media … you could have somebody get killed or seriously injured,” she warned.
Late last June, Ryan and lawyer Lynn Moore got an injunction that banned protesters within 40 metres of the clinic. But an injunction isn’t as strong as legislation, and Ryan and Moore started to meet with the provincial government on enacting a bubble zone law. “Right from the beginning, the government was very supportive of us.”
In December, the provincial government gave Royal Assent to the bubble zone law. It will keep protestors 50 metres away from the clinic, 160 metres from the homes of staff, and forbids people taking photos of people entering and leaving the clinic. It also includes 10 metres around doctors’ offices and 160 metres from doctors’ homes.
NL is now the second province to have such legislation. BC has had their own bubble zone law since 1995 and an attempted constitutional challenge was dismissed back in 2008. Clinics in BC have “seen a huge decrease in the number of protestors. Like, it’s almost like it took the wind out of their sails… So I’m hoping the same will be said here,” Ryan said. Already, she’s heard from an administrator at a Quebec clinic on how to get a bubble zone law.
While anti-choice protesters in St. John’s did maintain the 40-metres zone around the clinic, Ryan said having legislation is a stronger move. With the injunction, she would have had to take the protesters to court if they’d breached the zone. Now, she just needs to report any violations of the law. If found guilty, it could result in hefty fines of up to $10,000 and possible jail time.
People become pregnant in all sorts of circumstances, not all of them positive “And the people out by my door have no knowledge of what goes on in these people’s lives … the last thing they need is somebody standing up in front of them with hateful signs and with cameras stuck on, you know?” As a law, the bubble zone will further protect and support the reproductive choices people make.