Free Speech

Canadian update: Three concerns with how bubble zone laws specifically ban pro-life speech

By We Need a Law

Over the past few years, “safe access zone” laws, also called bubble zone laws, have been passed in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, and currently there is private member’s bill regarding this at the Manitoban legislature. Every time a province considers this issue, we’ve let you know and asked you to write to your representative pointing out the concerns with this type of law.

We are concerned about the ways these laws specifically ban pro-life speech. There are three restrictions that are particularly concerning in bubble zones, and I want to clarify those in more detail. I am using the Ontario legislation throughout; while other provinces’ laws might vary slightly in wording, they are similar in substance.

#1 Disapproval of abortion

Section 3(1)(c) While in bubble zone no person shall “perform or attempt to perform an act of disapproval concerning issues related to abortion services.” 

It is illegal to disapprove abortion near an abortion clinic. It’s not about how you disapprove, but the act of disapproving itself is illegal. If it were about disapproving loudly, that could be regulated through something like a noise bylaw. 

If it were about preventing large protests, that could be regulated through restrictions on gathering size, as we are seeing in response to Covid-19. 

But this law is not concerned with the manner of communication at all. It’s all about the message being communicated. You may approve of abortion, but disapproval is illegal.

This means, for example, that two women could stand side by side outside an abortion clinic with signs – one saying “I regret my abortion” and the other saying “I don’t regret my abortion.” Despite each being a statement of personal experience on the same topic, only the latter is legal. This prohibition isn’t about protecting women’s safety, or even peace of mind, but about preventing women from hearing anything other than full of approval of abortion.

#2 Informing about abortion

Section 3(1)(b) While in a bubble zone no person shall “inform or attempt to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services.” 

It is illegal to provide information.

This is the most bizarre element of bubble zones laws. Why do we need to prohibit information? And not just misinformation; this law actually prohibits one person from informing another person about abortion. Why does a law purporting to guarantee women safe access to abortion require the suppression of information?

Women seeking abortions are making complicated decisions based on the information they have. This information could come from what they learned school, what they’ve heard from family members, what their friend said, what the abortionist tells them, what they read in the news, or what they saw online. The fact is we don’t make decisions in a vacuum but based on the whole world around us, and an informed choice requires information.

Every woman deserves to know the truth about abortion. Not just the truth about the actual procedure, but the truth about the humanity and corresponding human rights of her pre-born child. She is making a choice – she deserves to know what the choice entails. Silencing a dissenting voice doesn’t increase a woman’s autonomy or safety, it only decreases the information and potential support available to her.

#3 Advising someone against abortion

While in a bubble zone no person shall “advise or persuade, or attempt to advise or persuade, a person to refrain from accessing abortion services.” Section 3(1)(a).

Notice again the one-way application: it’s illegal to advise or persuade someone not to have an abortion, but there is no prohibition on persuading someone to have an abortion. This is despite the number of women who report feeling pressured into having abortions.

Persuading a woman to have an abortion is a serious issue. Some women are coerced. This is especially a concern for women being trafficked, who are sometimes forced to have an abortion by their pimp. It is also an issue of safety for minors who have been sexually assaulted, where abortion is used to cover up a crime. 

Some women face pressure from loved ones. Whether it’s a partner threatening to leave or a parent threatening to kick her out of the home, there are many ways a woman can be wrongly persuaded into having an abortion, yet there is no law to criminalize this.

Even without anyone actively pressuring her, a woman can feel like she has nowhere to go. Whether it’s financial, social, or career-wise, some women feel like abortion is their only option. We are allowed to advise her to have an abortion, but we can’t provide other options. We aren’t allowed to talk to her to see if we can address her underlying concerns. We aren’t allowed to let her know that there is support for her if she becomes a parent. A woman in that situation may well be making the hardest decision of her life – why are we not allowed to come alongside her?

“Safe access” laws are not about promoting women’s interests. They are about promoting abortion by preventing a woman from encountering the pro-life message at a time when she may need it the most. Anyone concerned about the lives of pre-born children and the well-being of women, not to mention anyone who values freedom of expression, must oppose bubble zone laws.

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