Members of Bathurst Pro-Life picket the Chaleur Regional Hospital

Members of Bathurst Pro-Life picket the Chaleur Regional Hospital

An international, fraternal organization is throwing its weight behind a group of pro-lifers facing legal action from a New Brunswick health authority for protesting in front of a hospital where abortions were being carried out.

“We’re definitely working with national and international groups to get funding for them,” said David Hitchcock, state advocate for the Knights of Columbus in New Brunswick, in June.

When Bathurst pro-lifer Ron Jessulat launched his appeal for funding to the Knights of Columbus earlier this year, he was looking for either funds to hire a lawyer or a lawyer to work pro bono to mount a legal defense against a permanent injunction sought against him and other pro-lifers by the Vitalité Health Authority in Bathurst. Without that help, Jessulat would have been left defending the group on his own.

As the organizer of the pro-life prayer vigils which have been held in front of the Chaleur Regional Hospital for the past four years, Jessulat was also hoping for some financial assistance from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bathurst.

But, so far, the Diocese of Bathurst has refused to provide any financial support to this group.

Although he praised the group of pro-life protesters for their efforts to put an end to abortion and called them “prophets in their own way,” Fr. Wesley Wade, the diocese’s vicar general, distanced himself from their methods. He noted the members of that group were not delegates sent on behalf of the diocese and had not asked for the church’s permission to undertake their 40 Days for Life campaign in front of the hospital.

“We won’t pay for that,” he said. “There are consequences and they are facing that now.”

With the local Knights of Columbus now vowing to help raise funds for the Bathurst pro-life group’s defense fund, New Brunswick Right to Life executive director Peter Ryan is encouraged.

“We are hopeful the request for funding will be well-received and the organization will be able to provide assistance,” he said. “The New Brunswick level of the Knights of Columbus is sympathetic to our cause.”

Under the terms of the permanent injunction sought by the Vitalité Health Authority in June last year, any pro-lifers who have taken part or might take part in the 40 Days for Life campaign in Bathurst in the future would have to leave the Chaleur Regional Hospital property when asked to do so and would be forbidden from going onto the hospital grounds for the purpose of delivering a political, social or religious message. The permanent injunction being sought would also require the pro-lifers to abstain from physically preventing, impeding or restraining or undertaking any steps to hamper the flow of traffic and people arriving, leaving or circulating on the hospital grounds. Finally, the permanent injunction forbids the pro-lifers from harassing, threatening or intimidating any person arriving or leaving the hospital grounds.

In their statement of defence, the pro-lifers involved in the case argue they have a constitutional right to freedom of expression and maintain the most sensible place to have an information picket on an issue involving health and the protection of unborn children is along the access road to the Chaleur Regional Hospital. Jessulat accepts the court could establish reasonable and fair restrictions and conditions to ensure public safety, including limiting the number of picketers, the number of days they can picket, the size of their signs and designating specific areas where they could walk with their placards.

The local pro-life organizer also denies claims made by the health authority in the notice of motion for the permanent injunction that members of the group stopped cars on the hospital grounds or interfered with security of patients, their parents and friends and hospital employees.

In Fredericton, the executive director of New Brunswick Right to Life describes the health authority’s request for a permanent injunction as an infringement of pro-lifers’ right to freedom of speech.

“There should not be a ban on quiet, peaceful, pro-life expression on hospital grounds,” said Ryan. “The hospital is a public or quasi-public institution and so the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies.

“We want to have legal counsel to represent the pro-life position and we ourselves are not equipped to cover the entire costs of the expenses,” he said.

With the support of the Knights of Columbus, Jessulat says he’s now “cautiously optimistic” the group will be able to get the help it needs to continue its legal battle. Until May this year, Bathurst lawyer Terrence Lenihan was doing this work pro bono but now the group needs another lawyer.

“I’m happy they’re giving this request for funding a serious look,” he said. “It gives me a feeling that there is some hope. It’s nice to have that support.”

In northern New Brunswick, the Vitalité Health Authority is responsible for the operations of the Chaleur Regional Hospital where 25.7 per cent, or 378, of the 1,471 publicly-funded abortions committed in New Brunswick from January 2009 to the end of March 2012, were done. Pro-lifers in New Brunswick are convinced the Chaleur Regional Hospital is still doing about 110 abortions per year.