By Hilary White

VANCOUVER, September 5, 2008 ( – In December 1998 Gordon Watson and Don Spratt were arrested for having stood inside a “bubble zone” in front of Everywoman’s abortion site in Vancouver. Today, the British Columbia Court of Appeal agreed with a previous court and ruled that the so-called “bubble zones” surrounding abortion facilities in BC do not violate the freedom of speech guarantees enshrined in the Charter of Rights.

Although the courts found that prohibitions in the Access to Abortion Services Act on protesting in front of abortion facilities were in violation of the Charter, neither court was willing to overturn those provisions. Instead, they relied on Section 1 of the Charter to uphold the bubble zone, citing it as a “reasonable limitation on the freedom of expression” because of its importance in protecting medical clinics, personnel, and patients. The Court of Appeal was unwilling to restrict the application of the Act to violent and threatening behaviour, claiming a “bright line rule” was essential to enforcement, clarity, and protection.

The two men were charged with violating BC’s Access to Abortion Services Act that prohibits pro-life sidewalk counsellors or protesters from coming within 50 metres of an abortion facility. They were holding a wooden cross and signs that said “Abortion is Murder” and “Unborn Persons have a right to live.”

A number of interveners in the case argued that the bubble zone law is a violation of constitutionally protected rights of freedom of expression. Interveners included the BC Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Nurses for Life and a coalition of religious groups including the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

The Catholic Civil Rights League today said that the ruling meant, “In effect, within the bubble zones, there would only be allowed a one-sided information zone, limited to abortion providers.”

Joanne McGarry said that the law, as it is now interpreted by the courts, “likely makes it an offence for medical information of any kind to be provided within the subject zones, unless it is provided by the abortion provider.”

“The Court of Appeal” she said, “has effectively ruled that these bubble zones are to be limited to pro-abortion activities. Presumably the court believes women in B.C. cannot be exposed even to the peaceful presentation of other choices, even if based on a growing recognition of negative post-abortion medical consequences.”

 The appellants have not as yet announced whether they will seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.
  Read related coverage:

BC Pro-life Advocates Testing the Limits of Bubble Zones