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Alberta buffer zone law tested in Calgary as anti-abortion group calls new rules anti-free speech

Alberta buffer zone law tested in Calgary as anti-abortion group calls new rules anti-free speech
WATCH: A demonstration outside Calgary's northwest abortion clinic was held on Saturday. It was one of the first protests since the NDP government created zones to protect staff and clients from harassment. But as Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, pro-life groups are calling the law redundant and a political stunt.

The 40 Days for Life group has been gathering outside Calgary’s Kensington Clinic for nine years, but Saturday marked the first time the pro-lifers made an appearance since May, when the Alberta government passed a law forbidding protesters from coming within 50 metres of abortion clinics.

Organizers said they were there to pray and hold signs.

“The legislation is coming in under false premise that somehow we were harassing women going to the clinic,” said Karen Bout, with 40 Days for Life, on Saturday. “It hurts because it was such a lie and so untrue.”

READ MORE: Alberta introduces bill to create no-go zones around abortion clinics

A 2002 court injunction restricts protester distance and numbers, and prohibits them from speaking to clients.

“I don’t understand why there was any reason for the law because we already had the injunction in place,” Bout said. “It’s draconian enough. I think it was truly a political move.”

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Bout and others in the pro-life movement said the legislation that was passed this spring was designed to draw UCP leader Jason Kenney and his party into the abortion debate. When the vote was held in May, the bill passed without participation from members of the official opposition.

READ MORE: Alberta passes bill creating no-protest zones around abortion clinics

Matt Britton is a former district attorney from Virginia and a chairperson of 40 Days for Life who attended the gathering on Saturday. Britton called the Alberta law confusing and redundant, worrying that it restricts free speech.

“Who’s next? In 10 years will new law makers decide on new people who can’t talk?” Britton said. “We already have the injunction and now we’re going to pass a law. How do they interact? Maybe we have to think about it, but no, they just passed the law.”

Members of 40 Days for Life gather on 5th Avenue N.W. near Kensington Clinic on Saturday.
Members of 40 Days for Life gather on 5th Avenue N.W. near Kensington Clinic on Saturday. Global News

But Kensington Clinic said the injunction was repeatedly violated and the legislation is needed because it lays out penalties for those who violate the law.

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“It was a bit of a circus and it was escalating,” said Celia Posniak, executive director of the Kensington Clinic, about previous protests.

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“That’s when we appealed to the government of Alberta to provide protection that clinics across the country already had,” she added. “People were often shouting and waving rosaries and crucifixes and very rude hurtful signs. We don’t consider it protest. We consider it harassment of women.”

READ MORE: How university campuses became the focal point of Canada’s abortion debate

Posniak said the new law seems to be working.

“There’s hardly been anyone out,” Posniak said. “Women and staff have been able to come and go freely without fear of harassment.”

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The penalty for a first offence is $5,000 or a maximum jail term of six months. Doctors and other service providers can also apply for a zone up to 20 metres around their offices and 160 metres around their homes.

Visual or audio recordings of patients, doctors or staff within an access zone are also prohibited under the legislation.