The Progressive Conservative majority defeated a private member’s bill that would have established anti-free speech bubble zones around Manitoba abortion facilities and pharmacies that dispensed the abortion pill.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine (St. Johns) tabled Bill 200, Safe Access to Abortion Services, that would have established bubble zones of 150 meters around facilities where abortions take place, outlawing any pro-lifer from “inform(ing) or attempt(ing) to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services.” The law exempted abortuary staff or acquaintances of women seeking an abortion.

Fontaine said such a law was necessary to prevent abortion-minded women from being bullied and intimidated while accessing abortion services, whether it be a surgical or chemical abortion. At first reading on Nov. 20, Fontaine said, “This is fundamentally about protecting Manitoba women’s and girls’ right to access our health care system, which includes accessing abortion.” She did not provide evidence of incidences of such harassment at any Winnipeg abortuary or pharmacy, but claimed that seeing pro-life images or hearing pro-life information was intimidation.

Fontaine called on the government to “take action to make sure that women and girls have proper access to health-care facilities no matter what other people think,” and asked the Premier to “put aside politics” to pass Bill 200.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said bubble zones outlawing peaceful demonstrations violate the free speech rights of protesters. “She is addressing a problem that in her mind exists for one group, while failing to recognize that there’s a slippery slope here in taking away the freedoms of citizens to exercise their rights to express their views,” Pallister told reporters after the bill was introduced. Pallister said there are already laws that prevent harassment and intimidation and that the bubble zone was superfluous: “We have laws to protect people on the streets of our cities and towns.”

During the debate in the legislature, Pallister said, “the freedoms of citizens are precious things and should be safeguarded. They should especially be safeguarded when we recognize we may disagree with the people doing the protesting.”

Manitoba Health Minister Cliff Cullen expressed concern that the bubble zone would violate free speech rights.

Manitoba Health Minister Cliff Cullen expressed concern that the bubble zone would violate free speech rights.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen also raised the rights of protesters, saying during debate on Bill 200, “it would appear that that particular legislation may take, actually, rights away from Manitobans to express their opinion.” Fontaine replied that there would be “no impact on protesters in respect of their freedom of speech,” because they would be allowed to protest outside the 150 meter bubble zone.

During second reading on Dec. 6, Fontaine tied the supposed need for bubble zones to the 29th anniversary of the shooting at ÉcolePolytechnique, where 14 women were murdered in 1989. Dec. 6 is now marked as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women.

On Dec. 6, Bill 200 was voted down at second reading.

Nadine Sookermany, executive director of the Women’s Health Clinic, told the Winnipeg Free Press, she was disappointed. “All we’re looking for is just a bit of space for people to come through our doors and feel safe, comfortable and (to) access our services confidentially,” she said. She singled out Rochelle Squires, the minister responsible for the status of women, for voting against Bill 200.

Maria Slykerman of Campaign Life Coalition Manitoba told The Interim she is happy Bill 200 was defeated. “We wanted to bear witness to the unborn and Ms. Fontaine tried to take that freedom of speech away from us.” Slykerman dismissed the idea that prayerful witnesses such as 40 Days for Life harass or intimidate anyone.

In recent years, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario have passed bubble zone laws prohibiting the free speech of pro-lifers in those provinces.