Constructing peace of mind for patients

Proposed ‘buffer zones’ outside healthcare centres are long overdue

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

At least I didn’t have to wear one of the sandwich-board signs.

Still, I spent more than a few weekend afternoons pacing the Notre Dame sidewalk, a sullen, unwilling teenager woefully under-dressed for March. Forgoing gloves, a toque or anything resembling a parka, I staged my own silent protests.

If I had to take part in pro-life vigils outside the then-Women’s Hospital, I’d stay on the fringes of the group and look cool doing it, dammit.

I can’t trust my other memories of these marches. Mittened hands fumbling decade rosaries. Graphic imagery splashed underneath Comic Sans calls to action. Some cars slowing down to honk, others reversing course, driving down side streets.

Everything is jumbled. Clips from news segments, Instagram posts and textbooks merge with my years-old recollections into a stock-image version of anti-abortion protests.

Frostnip and lingering embarrassment aside, I took one thing away from these events: the Health Sciences Centre was The Place For Abortions.

That association persists, despite years of visiting sick family members, interviewing doctors and attending my own appointments there. Before my first biopsy, I wasn’t thinking about the impending pain, or even a possible positive result.

I was preoccupied, wondering what would happen if I ran into protestors outside the new Women’s Hospital building. I didn’t want confrontation, someone offering to pray with me, prying questions from an acquaintance – or worse.

The provincial NDP government introduced a bill on March 7 that would help assuage some of my residual unease. If passed, the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act would restrict protests outside clinics and hospitals that provide abortions.

Specifically, it would create buffer zones of at least 50 metres around these healthcare centres and 150 metres around the homes of abortion providers. Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Québec have similar laws to protect the privacy and safety of patients and healthcare workers.

“Patients entering clinics are often frightened and anxious by the presence of even seemingly peaceful protesters,” a position paper from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada reads, “and the emotional upset can negatively affect their health and safety as they undergo a medical procedure.”

This is true for any medical consultation or procedure, whether or not a patient is seeking an abortion.

Manitoba Families Minister Nahanni Fontaine told CBC that anti-abortion protestors have blocked, photographed and accosted people trying to enter hospitals and clinics.

Fontaine has tried to pass similar legislation multiple times, including a proposal to introduce buffer zones around schools. She also introduced a private members’ bill in 2021 to limit where people could protest COVID-19 safety measures.

On Sept. 1, 2021, hundreds of people crowded outside the Health Sciences Centre to oppose mask and vaccination mandates. As CBC Manitoba reported at the time, these demonstrators not only intimidated and harassed patients who wore masks, but also “hampered foot traffic and impeded vehicles, including ambulances driving with sirens blaring to the emergency department.”

After backlash, the group behind this rally moved a follow-up event to the Manitoba Legislative grounds. This is where protest

belongs. Political and ideological outbursts of any stripe have no place outside healthcare centres where people receive life-saving, emergency treatment.

If the NDP majority government passes the bill, this could be the last year I worry about facing coercion, admonitions and sandwich-board signs as I walk into my appointment at Women’s.

Really, there shouldn’t have been a first.

Danielle Doiron (they/she) is the copy and style editor of The Uniter. Lately, they call Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Fargo and Canberra home.

Published in Volume 78, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 21, 2024)

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