When a half dozen Members of Provincial Parliament sat and (presumably) listened to the dozen and a half presenters on the anti-free speech bubble zones before the standing committee on general government on Oct. 19, they left the impression of merely going through the motions of listening to experts and stakeholders. Indeed, with all three provincial parties at Queen’s Park getting behind Bill 163, the Protecting a Woman’s Right to Access Abortion Services Act, 2017, there was little reason to believe that anything anyone said would have changed the mind of a single MPP. Most elected representatives in Canada surrender their principles to the party once elected, so with all three political leaders in Ontario committed to passing Bill 163 as quickly as possible, the committee members were merely going through the motion’s of listening to witnesses.
Fourteen groups presented and the half dozen pro-lifers who were opposed to Bill 163 were asked a total of two questions. Tabitha Ewert, an articling student representing the Association of Reformed Political Action, was asked about the constitutionality of a similar law in British Columbia and the Catholic Civil Rights League’s Phil Horgan, another lawyer, was asked if he thought abortion-minded women seeing pro-lifer protesters could cause harm. (Horgan gave a great answer, saying in a democracy peaceful protests should not cause anyone harm.) But Campaign Life Coalition, a former sidewalk counselor, and a woman who suffered from post-abortion syndrome were asked nary a question. This was certainly a tactic to limit the time pro-lifers could speak. On the other hand, the pro-abortion speakers were repeatedly asked to reiterate or extrapolate their points. Liberal MP Lorenzo Berardinetti (Scarborough Southwest) could barely form a coherent question, asking Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, “Health care workers. Any thoughts?”
Committees are supposedly the place where the real work of legislating is done, that Question Period in the legislature is theatre. On Oct. 19, at least, the standing committee on general government was theatre. There was no deliberation, no inquiry into the ramifications of the bill, no serious thought from the MPPs on the issue.
Perhaps the MPPs did not care about the issue or knew that nothing that occurred in committee would affect the outcome of a bill that was fast-tracked by all-party agreement. Perhaps the MPPs were not properly prepared by their staff or party apparatchiks. But if witnesses who traveled to Queen’s Park to present or arranged to address the committee by teleconference took the time to prepare a statement, they are owed proper questions. The Interim offers some.
Juana Berinstein of the Association of Ontario Midwives said members of her organization do not currently provide abortion services, but indicated they will soon be administering the abortion drug Mifegymiso. She said the AOM applauds the effort of the Ontario government to protect health care workers in the field of reproductive services. Our question is this: Is there any evidence that an Ontario midwife has been threatened for their involvement in the abortion industry and thus would require or qualify for the protections afforded by Bill 163?
Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics claimed a “war-zone” atmosphere near abortuaries, describing Operation Rescue protests from the 1980s and the 1993 “bombing” at the Morgentaler abortuary. Our question is this: Do you have more recent evidence than a tactic employed three decades ago and an unsolved explosion from nearly a quarter century ago?
ARPA’s Tabitha Ewert talked about how Bill 163 was unnecessary because existing assault laws could be used. Our question is this: How many incidents of violence are reported to the police, and how many cases result in prosecutions and convictions as a result of the alleged harassment and intimidation?
Planned Parenthood Toronto head Sarah Hobbs-Blyth said Bill 163 will protect health care workers and women from the shame of judgement for providing and accessing a legal health service. Our question is this: Just because something is legal, does that mean it is morally right? We have a second question for this witness: Do people have the right not to be judged?
Campaign Life Coalition’s Matt Wojciechowski said Bill 163 was unnecessary and indeed totalitarian. Our question is this: Do you have concerns that once the principle of an anti-free speech bubble zone is established, that other groups might seek protection from protesters?
Enza Rattenni, a former sidewalk counselor with Aid to Women in Toronto, explained the life-saving work she did. Our question is this: Would the work of sidewalk counselors be possible outside the 50-150 meter bubble zone?
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Action Coalition, told the committee the atmosphere around abortion facilities could lead to violence between protesters and patients’ partners or staff. Our question is this: Why can’t people who engage in violent conflict near abortuaries be charged with assault? Why is a new, separate crime necessary?
Ottawa city councilor Catherine McKenney, whose ward in the nation’s capital is home to a Morgentaler abortuary where an alleged incidence of spitting occurred which was the catalyst for Bill 163, said intimidation and harassment is increasingly common at the abortion facility on Bank Street but the police will not act. Our question is this: How is it fair or just to punish the pro-life movement for the actions of a handful of individuals who could be charged with existing crimes?
Angelina Steenstra, founder of Canada’s Silent No More Awareness Campaign, described dealing with post-abortion syndrome after her abortion. Our question is this: What would be lost if abortion-minded women were denied information about the possible mental health and physical consequences of abortion that is often made available to expectant mothers by sidewalk counselors near abortuaries?
Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, mostly talked about barrier’s to access and he claimed some physicians won’t prescribe Mifegymiso because of stigma. Our question is this: Might doctors face stigma because there is something morally wrong about abortion and would this stigma disappear simply because protesters are no longer on their doorstep?
Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, focused on legal and constitutional issues surrounding the bill. Our question is this: Critics of the bubble zone say it infringes their freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly; would it infringe freedom of religion or freedom of conscience in any way?
Genevieve Carson, an organizer for Mississauga 40 Days for Life, described the life-saving work of the campaign that has shut down abortion businesses, changed the hearts of some abortion workers, and saved thousands of preborn lives. Our question is this: How will moving this witness a block or two away from abortion facilities affect getting their message to both pregnant women and abortion staff?
Two women from Defend Choice Ottawa claimed escalating harassment and violence over the past decade in Ottawa. Our question is this: If tensions are rising and there are more physical confrontations, where are the police reports for these incidents?
Lastly, Catherine Macnab of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, provided anecdotal evidence of an abortionist who was afraid to go to work and faced harassment and threats at one of the two locations she worked, where there was a pro-life picket, but none at another where there were no protesters. Our question is this: How much import should the committee give to anecdotal, hearsay evidence?
Of course, our questions are only just the beginning. Each party had a representative who could ask a question or questions for a few minutes. Fourteen presentations with the possibility of at least three questions each meant there should have been a minimum of 42 questions digging a little deeper into the issue. Being charitable, we saw maybe two inquiries seeking something more than boilerplate answers.
The threat to our democracy is clearest in the assault on freedom of speech, expression, and assembly on our streets with this totalitarian bubble zone law. A more subtle threat is the lack of serious deliberation in the examination of the laws being passed by our legislators.