Bill 163 committee hearing

Silent No More, midwives, and a city councilor among presenters

On Oct. 19, 17 stakeholders and other interested parties made presentations to the standing committee on general government to speak for or against Bill 163, the  Protecting a Woman’s Right to Access Abortion Services Act, 2017, which was introduced by the provincial Attorney General two weeks earlier and was being fast-tracked to be passed before the end of the month by an all-party agreement.

Making presentations against Bill 163 were the Association for Reformed Political Action, Campaign Life Coalition, a local representative of 40 Days for Life, Silent No More Awareness, and the Catholic Civil Rights League. Among those speaking in favour included Carolyn Egan, Joyce Arthur, Planned Parenthood Toronto and Planned Parenthood Ottawa, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, and the Association of Ontario Midwives.

Juana Berinstein of the Association of Ontario Midwives said her organization supported the proposed legislation, arguing women and trans people should have “access to health care, without fear or intimidation,” because “abortion care is an essential element” to reproductive rights. Berinstein said widwives do not currently provide abortion services in Ontario, but expected that to change shortly, once they are allowed to help administer abortion drugs. She claimed abortion services in Ontario are “fragile” and the bill helps strengthen that system.

Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics talked about tumultuous scenes from the days of Operation Rescue in the 1980s and invoked the explosion at Henry Morgentaler’s abortuary in 1993. She said there has been an increase in “anti-choice activities,” and that “fear of harassment or intimidation” must be eliminated if women are to have the right to abortion. She said the bill was vital now that President Donald Trump was “attacking abortion” in the United States, which she suggested could embolden the pro-life movement in Canada.

Egan called sidewalk counseling “an attempt to guilt” women into not having an abortion and said abortion rights is “an illusion” without bubble zones so the rights of women are protected.

NDP MPP Peggy Sattler (London West) thanked Egan her “incredible advocacy.” Egam responded by saying the fact there is pro-life activism is a “ridiculous situation in 2017.”

Tabitha Ewert, an articling student for the Association for Reformed Political Action Canada, said that a court decision earlier this year on abortion statistics acknowledged there is still a debate about abortion, but Bill 163 denies that reality. She also said assault laws make the bill redundant; assault laws, “cover abortion clinics just like they cover the rest of the province.” Ewert argued the government had not provided evidence that without this bill, access to abortion is, in fact, infringed. She concluded: “The Attorney General should prosecute crimes, not silence peaceful protesters.”

Planned Parenthood Toronto executive director Sarah Hobbs-Blyth stressed the importance of the bill to abortion workers. She said her staff faces threats even though Planned Parenthood in Canada does not commit abortions. “Our name puts a target on our back,” she said, without providing anything more than anecdotal evidence.

Hobbs-Blyth applauded the government’s regulatory approach in the bill, which allows it to be a “living law” so the bubble zone can be expanded to 150 meters when an application is approved, new groups and facilities that seek protection can be easily added, and that future modifications need not be made by legislators. She said her organization hoped the application process would be simple, free of charge and have a low threshold for evidence of need. Hobbs-Blyth said it is “imperative that providers feel safe” including outside the work zone, “free of public shaming” for doing a “legal procedure.” Bill 163 would make it illegal to present material “disapproving” of the procedure to any abortion workers,  anywhere they are.

Matt Wojciechowski of Campaign Life Coalition said his group was “deeply disappointed” the bill was fast-tracked and that the MPPs were ignoring the thousands of residents who signed petitions against Bill 163. He said the law was an attack on freedom of speech. As a Pole, he said he knew a “thing or two” about the effects of totalitarianism.

Joining CLC was Enza Rattenni, a former director at Aid to Women who saved babies through sidewalk counseling. She said sidewalk counselors are motivated by a “genuine desire to offer non-judgemental and peaceful counseling and provide a safe space to inform of supports and needs” for abortion-minded women. Rattenni said “many women felt trapped by circumstances” and the law infringes on the rights of women to make free and informed choices.

When Rattenni went to pull out pictures of babies saved by Aid to Women, committee chair Grant Crack barked “No props.” Rattenni replied “they are not props, they are human beings.”

In the afternoon, Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Action Coalition participated by teleconference. She condemned 40 Days for Life for “harassment” of individuals at abortion facilities, citing their “brochures” as something that “sometimes get clients upset.” She said one abortuary staff said Mary Wagner “creates a climate of fear” which “impacts our work flow for the day.” Arthur claimed abortion facility staff are fearful to file complaints because if they go to court, their names become public and they could face harassment at their homes. She also said there is an Australian study that indicates women have health complications following an abortion if there is the presence of protesters at the facility. Liberal MPP Yvan Baker (Etobicoke Centre) parroted back Joyce’s testimony in his question, stating that “even apparently peaceful protesters” can cause harm to women.

Ottawa city councilor Catherine McKenney also presented by teleconference. She represents the ward in which the Morgentaler abortuary is located. McKenney said she’s heard complaints about harassment for years and therefore supported Bill 163: “no government, no organization … can diminish reproductive rights.” She repeated the government’s line that Bill 163 was “fair” because it “protects women and health care workers and the rights of protesters.”

Angelina Steenstra, founder of Canada’s Silent No More Awareness Campaign, described her own experience with abortion and said she wished there had been someone outside the abortuary to offer her options to killing her baby. She described the benefit of sidewalk counselors and picketers: “to offer one last chance” to change minds.

Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, spoke more about the lack of abortion access before pivoting to suggest the bubble zone could lead to a greater willingness of physicians to commit abortion if they were free of fear of harassment. He described Bill 163 as a “model” for legislation “for the rest of Canada and beyond Canada as well.”

Phil Horgan, a lawyer and president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, made legal and constitutional arguments against the bill, saying that unlike the British Columbia law, passed in 1995 and upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal in 2008, Ontario’s law would not be a “demonstrably justified” infringement of the Charter’s rights to free expression because there is no evidence the violation of freedom is necessary. Horgan submitted a peer-reviewed study “Abortion health services in Canada,” published in Canadian Family Physician, which asked abortion facilities about any interferences they suffered. Of the seven Ontario abortuaries to respond, one reported no violence or harassment and six others reported no “forms of violence or harassment including threatening emails or telephone calls,” only peaceful protests.

Liberal MPP Han Dong (Trinity-Spadina) asked one of the few questions presented to a pro-life witness, wondering if protests harmed women obtaining abortions. Saying he was unqualified to address the question, Horgan answered when Dong insisted he reply to his inquiry: “The reality is a peaceful protest should not cause anybody harm,” said Horgan. “That’s democracy. When you go another point to say it’s non-peaceful protests, there could be violence, where’s the evidence of that?”

Genevieve Carson, organizer for Mississauga 40 Days for Life, recounted the life-saving work their vigil does and asked “Is it really so bad” that they are there and that babies are being saved?

There were also representatives of Defend Choice Ottawa and Planned Parenthood Ottawa who offered anecdotal evidence that staff and women are subject to what they label harassment and intimidation, but included among such tactics the showing of graphic images of abortion victims.

The hearings ended when Catherine MacNab, exec director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa concluded her presentation in camera. So the public cannot know what she said in private to members of the committee.

Following each presentation, Progressive Conservative MPPs Gila Martow (Thornhill) and Lisa Thompson (Huron-Bruce) thanked the pro-abortion activists for their presentation and told pro-lifers that Queen’s Park was a place where everyone should be able to have their say. Martow said several times the PCs “want the bill passed as quickly as possible.” Martow thought there was already sufficient consultation in developing the bill and proclaimed, “We are all on the same page on this.”

Bill 163 was passed in the legislature by an 86-1 vote six days later.

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