Windsor hospital in middle of abortion bubble zone battle

28 March 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Windsor Regional Hospital could be the first hospital in Ontario, perhaps Canada, to successfully apply for a 150-metre restriction on pro-life protests or vigils.

The hospital has written the Ontario government for more information about how to “make an application” for such a “safe access zone” under the 2017 Safe Access to Abortion Services Act.

This follows a request by a newly formed women’s group in the city called Feminists for Action.

“Women who terminate a pregnancy by choice or due to medical necessity should be able to access these services with a sense of safety and dignity without being shamed by anti-abortion activists,” the group says in an online petition to “compel” the hospital to “apply for and enforce the 150-metre bubble-zone protection.”

Last year, Alberta lawmakers passed a bill that keeps protesters at least 50 metres away from the province’s two abortion clinics in Edmonton and Calgary.

In Windsor, Feminists for Action says the hospital had been asked in early 2018 about a 150-metre buffer but the hospital CEO, David Musyj, had said “due to a lack of complaints or concerns voiced by patients or visitors” there would be no application. 

Nevertheless, the Feminists for Action petition says: “It is time to voice our concerns for the safety, dignity, and freedom of choice of the individuals seeking these services.”

Under the provincial act there are already 50-metre “access zones” around the province’s eight free standing abortion clinics that are not at hospitals. But no hospitals have received a 150-metre protest restriction. 

Protests or vigils have been occurring outside the one medical institution in the area that provides abortions, Windsor Regional Hospital, for decades.

Windsor -Essex County Right to Life, for example, has carried out a walk for Mother’s Day and has Life Chains, started two years ago, in January and October. But pro-life activism of one sort or another “has been going on for decades,” said Helen Dietrich, president of the association.

The feminists’ petition comes during the 40 Days for Life campaign, a U.S.-based pro-life effort led in Windsor by Laurie Eberhardt. It runs during the Lenten season and ends on April 14 Palm Sunday. The group also has a 40-day fall campaign ending the first Sunday in November.

There have been no incidents during the vigils.

“We don’t harass, we don’t intimidate, we’re not there cursing at women, we don’t even know who’s going into the hospital to have an abortion,” Eberhardt said.

The protesters walk on a public sidewalk 100 metres from the hospital’s main entrance, separated by a parking lot.

Should the hospital apply for the restriction and be successful, protesters would have to move back at least a block into residential neighbourhoods, largely removed from hospital sight lines.

Beyond what’s contained in their online petition, Feminists for Action declined an interview. Its online petition had gathered 1,300 signatures by March 18. The local 40 Days for Life group launched their own petition supporting “freedom of speech and freedom of religion” which has 3,300 signatures. 

Hospital spokesman Steve Erwin said there have been “no major concerns” about protesters but added that since this issue arose “there have been some relayed to us from different individuals … just about the comfort level of some individuals walking by.” 

The pro-life groups say a 150-metre buffer would restrict free speech. 

“It’s just that the bubble zone restricts freedom of expression and freedom of religion for pro-life people only,” Eberhardt said. “Any other citizen in Windsor or Canadian can go inside that bubble zone and protest any other subject.”

Tabitha Ewert, legal counsel for the pro-life group We Need a Law, testified at hearings before the 2017 Ontario law was passed.

“And my testimony there was basically that this legislation is largely unnecessary anywhere where it bans harassment or intimidation, those things are already illegal under the criminal code,” she said.