(RNS) — Ontario is about to authorize buffer zones around abortion clinics, of the kind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against.
According to the Ottawa Citizen, Bill 163 would prohibit anti-abortion protests within 50 meters (55 yards) of the province’s eight stand-alone abortion clinics. Ontario would join two other Canadian provinces — British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador — with similar measures.
In 2014, the U.S. high court struck down a Massachusetts law created in 2007 that established 35-foot buffer zones outside abortion clinics, also known as “bubble zones.”
In keeping with the strong American tradition of free speech, the court ruled that the law infringed upon the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion activists. Chief Justice John Roberts said that laws concerning harassment, intimidation and obstruction were sufficient to deal with abusive speech around the clinics.
As both a pro-lifer and free speech advocate, I might be expected to hate this legislation. But, with regret, I confess it seems like the right thing to do.
To be sure, I thoroughly support campus groups putting up anti-abortion posters and distributing literature in student union buildings, even as such groups have been harassed and disenfranchised by student governments and university administrations throughout North America. The nexus of abortion and women’s rights continues to deserve straightforward debate, and universities ought to be places in which such important matters are freely discussed.
But a woman exercising her legal right to an abortion should not have to run a gauntlet of screaming opponents characterizing her choice and the difficult procedure she is about to undergo in the most horrifying terms. We protect free speech so that ideas can be articulated and considered fairly, and there isn’t a lot of sober deliberation going on amid the shouting of epithets outside a clinic.
I share the horror many protesters feel about what’s happening in these clinics. But many of the women who resort to them feel lousy about what’s happening to them and what’s going to happen. If the protesters were to offer gentle alternative advice and support for these anguished women — and some do — that would be one thing.
But bubble-zone legislation doesn’t get passed because a few kind souls engaged a few willing women in thoughtful conversation on the sidewalk. In each jurisdiction that has passed these laws, violence has occasioned them.
I hate to see free speech restricted, but not if the intent and effect of these protests is mere injury, let alone the prevention of people from doing what the law allows them to do. And, despite Chief Justice Roberts’ assurances to the contrary, it’s very unlikely that overworked police officers and district attorneys are going to go to the trouble of prosecuting a few loudmouthed protesters — thus leaving the women open to abuse at a time when they feel especially vulnerable.
Bubble zones are like restraining orders: last resorts when civility and mutual respect have broken down and people fear for their safety. That evidently has been the case, so bubble-zone legislation needs to be on the table as a possible, if regrettable, recourse.
(And wouldn’t conservative Christians want bubble zones around our churches on Sunday mornings if protesters decided to use the same tactics on us as we tried to make our way in for worship?)
Meanwhile, pro-lifers have every other means of persuasion and legislation open to us. As ethicist Charles Camosy has recently written, the tide of popular opinion has already turned regarding the abortion wars, and it may be time to revisit the issue in both countries.
But without the yelling.
(John G. Stackhouse Jr. is a professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada, and author, most recently, of the book, “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)