First pro- life legal win in recent years ends government crackdown and breaths new life into pro-life witnessing. Mike Mastromatteo The interim
Pro-life groups across the country are hailing the decision of the B.C. Provincial Court to strike down the Bill 48 (Access to Abortion Services Act), the legislation banning picketing around B.C. abortion clinics.
In the January 23 decision, Judge E.J Cronin said Bill 48 violates freedom of conscience and religion guarantees under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The judge ruled the act is unlawful in banning all peaceful protests and any form of attempted communication about abortion within the restricted zones.
The NDP government ob British Columbia announced January 24 that it will appeal Judge Cronin’s decision. Meanwhile, pro-life activity which will be limited by injunctions which were in place prior to the enactment of Bill 48.The issue came to a head with the arrest of Maurice Lewis,44 a Vancouver pro-life activist who refused to stay out of the province’s protective barrier around abortion clinics.
The so called “bubble zone” prevented any form of pro-life picketing within 50 metres of hospitals and abortion clinics and within 160 metres of the homes of abortionists and co-workers. It also prohibited carrying signs or delivering any kind of pro-life message to women entering the clinics. First-time offenders were subject o a $5,000fine and/or a six-month jail sentence.
Lewis who was arrested September 22, was the first person charged under Bill48. He was carrying a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe-patron of unborn children-at the time of his arrest.
Ted Gerk, president of the Pro-Life Society of British Columbia, welcomed Judge Cronin’s ruling.” Today the courts in British Columbia have affirmed what we have been saying all along, that the NDP government’s fixation in stamping out public opposition to abortion would end in failure,” Gerk said. He said the “prize” in this court challenge was freedom of religion and the right to publicly dissent with government social policy.
Meanwhile, John Hof, President of campaign Life Coalition B.C., said the ruling leaves pro-life supporters free to demonstrate their opposition to abortion without fear of arrest. ”Pro-lifers can once again offer a last hope of assistance to women going in abortion,’’ Hof said.
Pro-life picketing, sidewalk counselling and ordinary prayer and witnessing have been a necessary part of the struggle to defend the rights of the unborn children. Those on the front lines, braving the elements, the sneers of passersby and the quiet contempt of mainstream media, believe their efforts are slowly making a difference.
“Sidewalk counselling is one of the most important aspects of the pro-life movement,” said Cindi Loforti, president of Campaign Life Niagara.” Many woman seeking abortion believe that the have no alternative, and sidewalk counselling is a chance to get through to them at the very last moment.’’
Loforti, a former sidewalk counselor, said a decision upholding Bill 48 would have been a major blow to the pro-life cause.” Our hope now is that the decision in B.C. will have a positive impact in Ontario. Perhaps the Harris government will use the decision to drop the restrictions against Ontario pro-life activity.”
Attorney Paul Formby’s defence of Lewis centered on Bill 48’s restriction of Charter guarantees of freedom of speech and religion. He argued that the Crown’s stated objective of ensuring access to a necessary medical service was in conflict with its real aim of banning effective picketing and sidewalk counselling. He suggested that the true purpose of Bill 48 was to silence pro-life communication. Where and when it would be most effective.
Formby also argued that a key justification for Bill 48, that it protected women from harassment and intimidation by pro-life picketing, was not supported by the trial evidence.
“In attempting to show that the purpose of the legislation was to prevent harassment, intimidation or threats from occurring, the Crown failed to produce one independent witness in the proceeding who was a ‘user’ of abortion services who was such a victim,” Formby said.
Pro-life supporters across the country had been concerned that the B.C. legislation, coupled with lingering court injunction against pro-life demonstrations in Ontario, were politically motivated actions designed to stifle legitimate protest against abortion.
In introducing Bill 48 last June, B. C. Health Minister Paul Ramsey said the legislation was an attempt to balance free speech with a woman’s right to obtain an abortion without fear of harassment and intimidation from pro-lie picketers. Passage of Bill 48 was accelerated in response to the November, 1994 shooting of a Vancouver-area abortionist.
Many commentators, even those traditionally opposed to pro-life efforts, were surprised at the extent of B.C. legislation in overriding free speech. The province, however, argued the bill is a necessary restriction on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom guarantees.
Vancouver-area pro-lifers centered their opposition to Bill48 at Gianna House; a private residence located every woman’s Health Clinic in east Vancouver. Owned by activist Sissy von Dehn, Gianna House was the scene of weekly prayer vigils against abortion supporters as a means of intimidating abortion-seeking women.
Canadian pro-life supporters were unanimous in their criticism of Bill 48. Betty Green, president of Vancouver Right to Life, said the legislation was nothing more than attempt to silence pro-life voices.
“If we’re such an insignificant group as pro abortion side claims, why did the government go to such extreme lengths to silence us?” Green asked.
She believes the continuing pro-life witness outside abortion sites in Canada keeps the public spotlight on the issue. One lessoned to be learned from the Lewis case she added, is for pro-life supporters to take full advantage of the Charter to protect their rights.
“We have to be ready to use the Charter to defend ourselves, not just unborn children,’’ she said.
Sissy von Dehn, owner of Gianna House and central figure in the Lewis case, agreed that Bill48 and other provincial initiatives to limit pro-life demonstrations are dangerous precedent.
“It’s almost as if the bubble-zone was being erected around free speech,” von Dehn told The Interim. She said the Lewis case highlights the effort by some to equate pro-life demonstrating and sidewalk counselling with violence.” The shooting of counselling with abortionists over the last two to three years has not only diminished the public perceptions of witnessing, she said, it has also given more impetus for restrictive legislation.”
“The shootings gave some the excuse to downplay public demonstrations,” von Dehn said, “Now even prayer has been associated with public protest and harassment.”
For his part, Maurice Lewis feels vindicated by the court decision. He remains convinced of the importance of pro-life witnessing. During the trial, he said the single most effective way of saving unborn children is by making a ‘Christian offer” of help to the mother at the last moment of the abortion clinic doors.”
“It’s my belief that Bill 48 has no force in law,” Lewis said in testimony.
“Government can’t pass a law that takes away my right as a Canadian citizen to peacefully demonstrate … It’s in the Canadian Charter of Rights. It’s in the Canadian Charter of Rights. It’s one of the things that differentiates free country from a police state.”
In addition to upholding their right to freedom of speech and religion, pro-lifers are encouraged by the Lewis decision in other ways. Testimony by several defence witnesses emphasized the humanity of the unborn child. As well, the trial brought to light the distress many women go through following an abortion.