Alberta lawmakers have passed a bill mandating no-protest zones around abortion clinics after a vote in which the Opposition United Conservatives once again walked out of the chamber in protest.
“Women’s rights are human rights,” Health Minister Sarah Hoffman told the legislature Wednesday before the house passed Bill 9 by a 45-1 margin in third and final reading.
“No woman should face bullying or harassment when accessing health care, and no woman should have to live in fear of threats, intimidation or violence.”
The bill bans protesters from standing, demonstrating or taking pictures within at least 50 metres of an abortion clinic. There are similar restrictions to prevent abortion doctors and staff from being harassed at their other offices or at home.
Police have the power to arrest suspected violators at the scene and penalties for individuals run as high as a $10,000 fine or a year in jail or both.
The NDP were joined in passing the bill by the Alberta party, Liberal David Swann, and Independent member Richard Starke.
The lone dissenter was Independent Derek Fildebrandt, who said women and staff should not be harassed outside clinics, but said the bill goes too far in limiting free speech.
The United Conservative caucus again refused to participate in the debate and walked out en masse twice during votes.
UCP Leader Jason Kenney is against abortion and said his caucus would not debate or vote on the bill, calling it nothing more than divisive political gamesmanship by Premier Rachel Notley’s government.
His caucus walked of the house a total of 14 times when the bill came up in the house over the last two months, and only one member, Angela Pitt, spoke to it in debate.
Politicians on all sides criticized the UCP for failing to engage.
“I find it offensive that the UCP opposition has chosen to boycott any debate on this piece of legislation and has opted instead to abandon the legislative duty that they were elected to do and not vote time, and time, and time, and time again. Truly shameful,” said Tourism Minister Ricardo Miranda.
Alberta party member Karen McPherson said she was disappointed by the UCP walkout.
“We are very fortunate to represent the people of Alberta in this chamber, to participate in democracy in a way that so many people throughout the world do not enjoy. That honour should always be taken seriously.”
The four members of the UCP in the house at the time – Leela Aheer, Wayne Drysdale, Wayne Anderson, and Grant Hunter – did not look up from their laptops and phones during the critiques.
When the bells rang to signal the vote, they walked toward the exit as abortion clinic staffers, sitting above and behind them in the public gallery, craned their necks over the railing to get a look at them.
Abortions in Alberta are handled mainly by two clinics, one in Edmonton and one in Calgary.
Operators of those clinics have had civil injunctions in place for years to keep protesters at a distance but say the orders get ignored by demonstrators.
Kenney was not in the chamber during the debate or votes, but earlier Wednesday told reporters, “I think the courts are in a better position to adjudicate the tension between freedom of expression and public safety.
“If there’s a reason why those (abortion clinic civil) injunctions should be expanded or strengthened, I would rather have a court of law look at such an application as opposed to politicizing this through a statute.”
Alberta now joins Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador, which have similar so-called bubble zone legislation already in place.