Bubble-Zone Freedom

Trudy J. Morgan-Cole September/October 2000 The young woman, like so many others before her, brushes past the older woman on the sidewalk, averting her eyes from a sign with a baby's picture and the words "Why, Mom--When I Have So Much Love to Give?" "We have only about seven seconds to try to make a contact with them," says 52 year-old pro-life activist Linda Gibbons of this scenario. "And we save maybe three babies per week--in a good week--while there are maybe 100 babies killed per week."[1]

As the young woman edges past Gibbons and into the clinic, police move in to arrest the protestor. Arrest is nothing new to Gibbons, who has spent a total of 66 months in jail since a 1994 Ontario court injunction outlawed pro life protests outside three Toronto abortion clinics.

Is this a violation of Gibbons's right to free speech? Or is it a necessary measure to protect that young woman's freedom to choose abortion?

As with so many other issues in the complex and emotionally charged abortion debate, the answers depend on whom you ask. To pro-choice activists, injunctions like the one in place in Ontario are the only way to ensure that women have free access to medical care, without harassment. These injunctions, says the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL), "ensure the patient's health and protect them from risks and complications, ensure that doctors and their families are free from harassment and intimidation, and ensure that abortion as a medically necessary service continues to be available in the province."[2]

At the crux of the debate is a seemingly unresolvable conflict: what one group sees as a "medically necessary service" is labeled "murder" by those on the opposing side. But in recent months in Canada, debate has centered not on the issue of abortion itself, but on the question of freedom of speech. Are laws that restrict pro-lifers from promoting their views actually violating the fundamental right to freedom of expression?

Jason Kenney, the federal member of Parliament for Calgary Southeast, says yes to this question. He is a member of the Reform Party, Canada's official opposition, a right-wing party known for supporting "family values." So it was no surprise that on December 3, 1999, Kenney made a statement in the House of Commons declaring that the arrests of pro-life demonstrators like Gibbons constituted an attack on freedom of speech. "Freedom of speech is meaningless if it doesn't protect the rights of those expressing controversial and unpopular views," Kenney said. "If we do not stop these attacks, all Canadians will see a fundamental right imperiled."[3]

Linda Gibbons's arrest in front of Toronto's Scott abortion clinic in October 1999 had an unusual twist. Arrested along with the veteran protestor were three journalists: Sue Careless, Steve Jalsevac, and Gord Truscott. All three represented pro-life, pro-family publications or organizations. They were charged with obstructing police, although, according to Gibbons, they were simply recording her arrest, not interfering in any way. Their cameras and film were confiscated. "If they had not been from the Christian media," Gibbons says, "if they had been from the Star, the Globe, or the National Post, they would never have been arrested."[4]

The Canadian Association of Journalists condemns the arrest of Careless, Jalsevac, and Truscott as a violation of freedom of the press. "While we understand the journalists are pro-life supporters, that in no way gives police the right to infringe upon freedom of the press," says Boni Fox, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists. "This is the kind of muzzling that limits the coverage of important events as they unfold and ultimately threatens public debate."[5] The CAJ called for the charges to be dropped and asked for apologies from the police. According to their online newsletter, the incident at the Scott clinic "is only the latest example of police efforts to silence journalists involved in reporting controversial or sensitive stories."[6]

The 1994 Ontario injunction that has landed Linda Gibbons in jail so many times creates a 60-foot "bubble zone" around Toronto abortion clinics, inside of which pro-life demonstrators may not stage any kind of protest or engage in sidewalk counseling. Pro-choice supporters argue that injunctions like this have become a necessity in the wake of recent attacks and threats against doctors who perform abortions.

"These injunctions were not set in place to prohibit those who oppose abortion from expressing their views. They were set in place for public safety," says Cyndy Recker, information officer for CARAL. She cites examples of clinic bombings, harassment, and intimidation against patients and health-care workers. "Any limits injunctions may impose are justified in the interests of public safety. We feel it is acceptable for people to hold whatever view they want on abortion, but they do not have the right to intimidate or harass people about their views. Words and posters of hate create acts of hate. If you call a doctor a murderer long enough, someone will eventually think it is lawful to impose the death penalty on that doctor. This is not speculation: we know it is happening in Canada and the U.S. right now."[7]

Jason Kenney dismisses such concerns. "It's a completely groundless myth invented to justify this violation of freedom," he says. "In isolated cases some protestors may have been verbally abusive. The vast majority have been peaceful, civil, and not disruptive."[8] He points out that while pro-life protestors in the late 1980s and early 1990s sometimes blocked access to abortion clinics "in the tradition of civil disobedience,"[9] most of the pro-life demonstrations in Canada's cities today are much less obstructive: many are silent protests.

As an example, Kenney cites two cases in Vancouver, British Columbia--a province that has legislated 165-foot (50-meter) "bubble zones" around all its abortion clinics. One young woman was arrested for handing out carnations to women entering a clinic. Another pro-life activist, Jim Demers, was arrested for silently standing outside a clinic with a sign that quoted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child. When told that he was intimidating the women entering the clinic simply by looking at them, Demers returned to the Everywoman's Abortion Clinic blindfolded and gagged, still holding his sign.

Sidewalks in front of abortion clinics are not the only places where pro-life demonstrators claim their freedom of speech has been violated. Jason Kenney is appalled that two of the incidents took place on university campuses--ironically, he says, since "a university campus is supposed to be a haven of free speech."[10] At the University of Victoria, British Columbia, a pro-life student club had its anti-abortion signs torn down; the university's student association deregistered the club.

The pro-life club Students for Life on the campus of the University of British Columbia faced a similar experience. In the fall of 1999 the club invited the U.S.-based Genocide Awareness Project to set up a display on campus featuring "two-meter-high photos of bloody, dismembered fetuses."[11] University officials were concerned, especially when they heard that pro choice counterprotestors planned to overturn cars, throw paint on the photos, and burn the U.S. flag if the display went ahead. They suggested moving the display to a less central location on campus and asked the sponsors of the Genocide Awareness Project to pay a $20,000 security deposit. The group refused, and the display was canceled. They did hold a public lecture on campus, which was disrupted by pro-choice demonstrators who apparently pulled the fire alarm during the presentation.

The university administration claimed their decision to restrict the planned display was based not on the content of the display itself, but on the rumored counterprotest. This appears to support Jason Kenney's theory that "what the general public sees on TV at anti-abortion protests is pushing, shoving, acrimony--but 90 percent of the time this is coming from the counterdemonstrators on the other side."[12] Though pro-choice advocates would certainly debate that claim, the threat of counterprotest was enough to concern University of British Columbia authorities.

Craig Jones, president of British Columbia's Civil Liberties Association, says that the university's decision restricted the pro-lifers' right to free expression. The university, he says, seems to have bought into a "troubling drive to inoffensiveness" that afflicts many Canadian university administrations. "I personally think that UBC students are tough enough that they wouldn't break down into a mass of sobbing jelly if they saw these things."[13]

Stephanie Gray, an 18-year-old UBC student with the Students for Life group, agrees that "these are not pleasant images. But we have the right to show them--because they're the truth."[14]

A month later Gray was in the news again when Students for Life erected its own pro-life display on the UBC campus. About two hours after the display, featuring posters of aborted fetuses, was erected, three student officers of the university's student association, the Alma Mater Society, destroyed the display and ripped up the posters. "The complete dismissal of this [display] by the AMS is telling us that if we, as students, hold a different opinion than they do, then we're in trouble," says Stephanie Gray.[15] Police launched a criminal investigation into the incident after Students for Life reported it.

Many Canadians might agree that universities ought to be arenas for open discussion and debate, and perhaps would agree with Craig Jones's observation that university students should be able to deal with graphic depictions of aborted fetuses in the name of free speech. But what about a woman entering a clinic to have an abortion? Is she more vulnerable? Should her rights to privacy and choice be protected, even at the cost of denying protestors their freedom of speech?

Linda Gibbons, veteran of so many protests, does make a distinction. "I don't disapprove of signs that show the products of abortion, blood-and-gore signs," she says. "I think they have their place, such as at a political protest, in front of a legislative building. But I don't use those kind of signs in front of a clinic."[16] Instead she carries her "Why Mom?" sign, and sometimes uses another striking visual aid--a detailed life-size model of a 12-week fetus. "I'll show it to them and say, 'This is what a 12-week baby looks like,'" she says. "What we aim for is to get the woman to identify herself as a mother, to speak for the child who is voiceless."[17]

According to CARAL's Cyndy Recker, what sidewalk counselors like Gibbons are actually doing is posing a health risk to the women entering the clinics. "The anxiety created by harassment by anti-abortion protestors outside clinics could make the procedure riskier for women, who need to be relaxed," she says.[18]

Naturally, the pro-life protestors see their role quite differently. Robert Hinchey is a spokesperson for Aid to Women, the pro-life center where Gibbons has worked for many years. Aid to Women is located next to the Cabbagetown Women's Clinic, and its picketers regularly attempt to speak to women entering the abortion clinic. To Hinchey, watching a woman enter an abortion clinic is like watching a woman about to drop her baby off a balcony. "If you were driving by . . . wouldn't you holler up to her, 'Please, don't kill your baby. Let me help you'?"[19]

For Linda Gibbons and others like her, there's no question what they would- and will--do. Gibbons, who had always been pro-life, felt a call to become more actively involved in the movement when she attended a church showing of the anti-abortion film The Silent Scream. Gibbons is a devout Christian who clearly believes she is doing God's work. In a National Post editorial about Gibbons and her latest arrest, University of Western Ontario law professor Ian Hunter says, with tongue firmly in cheek, "I do not suggest that Gibbons is a model prisoner. Admittedly she was a pain when she asked to have a Bible. And she sometimes leads her cellmates in prayer. Guards have commented that the jailhouse language markedly improves in her presence. Such is the nefarious control that one devious criminal mind is capable of exerting over others."[20]

To pro-life supporters, Linda Gibbons, with her cumulative total of more than five years in jail, is as much a martyr to the cause of life as were the early Christians hiding in catacombs. To those who support the pro-choice view, she is a nuisance, an incorrigible lawbreaker who has no respect for others' rights and deserves every day she has spent behind bars. But one thing everyone can agree on is that Gibbons and others like her are igniting anew an age-old debate: Where do one person's rights end and another's begin? When a government acts to protect women who are seeking abortions, does it at the same time limit its citizens' fundamental right to free speech? When pro-lifers exercise their freedom of speech, are they in fact stirring up the kind of hatred that can lead to clinic bombings and the murder of doctors? Where should the line be drawn?

Despite Jason Kenney's attempts to shine a spotlight on what he calls "the most gross systematic violation of any group's freedom of speech in Canada,"[21] Canadian legislators are not likely to resolve these disturbing questions anytime soon. And Linda Gibbons, currently free after serving a minimal sentence, may soon be on her way back to jail.

Trudy J. Morgan-Cole is a freelance writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.


[1].Linda Gibbons, interview with author, Feb. 24, 2000.
[2].Cyndy Recker, CARAL information officer, interview with author, Feb. 9, 2000.
[3]. "Kenney Assails Attacks on Pro-Lifers' Freedom of Speech," news release, office of Jason Kenney, Dec. 3, 1999.
[4].Gibbons interview.
[5]. "CAJ Condemns Arrest of Journalists," Canadian Association of Journalists, Dec. 2, 1999 [online: http://www.caj.ca/news/99_dec3_arrests.html].
[6]. Ibid.
[7].Recker interview.
[8].Jason Kenney, interview with author, Feb. 23, 2000.
[11].Todd Douglas, "UBC Imposes Restrictions on Anti-abortion Campaign," Vancouver Sun, Oct. 1, 1999, pp. B1, B4.
[12].Kenney interview.
[15].Michelle Simick, "RCMP Probe Razing of UBC Anti-abortion Ads," Vancouver Sun, Dec. 2, 1999, p. B1.
[16].Gibbons interview.
[18].Recker interview.
[19].Kathy Friedman, "Pro-choice Students Unite," Toronto Star, Nov. 9, 1999, p. E3.
[20].Ian Hunter, "Ontario's Speech-free Bubbles," National Post, Nov. 11, 1999, p. A14.
[21].Kenney interview.

Article Author: Trudy J. Morgan-Cole