Tuesday, April 16, 2013
On Public Safety
When I worked at the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, there were anti-abortion protesters every clinic day. The boundaries of our property defined where they were and were not legally allowed to walk with their signs, and for the most part they followed those rules. That meant the surrounding sidewalk was full of them, and it was not a wide, big-city street; it was a standard two-person-wide affair that was blocked very easily by the protesters, especially when they had large signs. It wasn't a super interesting street either, so they drew the eye of drivers going by, who would sometimes even pull over to engage with them.
There was the guy who stopped his big silver SUV almost every week for a time, to argue with the protesters about the Supreme Court. There was one memorable woman who leaned on the horn starting a good block away from the clinic and continued blaring it for a block afterwards, using her free hand to flip off the protesters. One pickup truck carrying a patient and her partner was the source of an empty plastic water bottle being lobbed with stunning precision at one unfortunate protester's head.
These situations (and hundreds of others like them; this stuff happened on a weekly basis) were the foundation of our lobbying the government for a bubble zone around the clinic; besides the safety of our patients and staff, it was (is) an issue of public safety. When cars are slowing down without warning, when people walking by are getting into heated arguments, when customers of businesses nearby feel threatened, then it is an issue of public safety. I know many anti-abortion protesters lean heavily on a "free speech" argument when talk turns to turfing them from public sidewalks, and I sympathize because I lean absolutist in the free speech debate. But I also feel that personal safety is paramount, and public safety should be everyone's goal.
So when I read this article in NOW Magazine about the anti-choice activists who are targeting Toronto high schools, I have to agree with the teacher quoted in the article who points out that while the protesters (who occupy the sidewalks just outside of school property) have a right to be there and a right to freedom of speech, high school students don't have a choice about whether or not they have to go to school, so they should have an expectation of safety. And even if the protesters aren't threatening their physical safety, I would argue (as the teacher, Michael Erickson, does) that the expectation of safety should extend to not having to be exposed to triggering images or situations. What does it do to the students who have experienced abortion or miscarriage to see those signs, or to have those people approach them to tell them the "truth" about abortion? It isn't fair that high school students are not free to avoid those messages.
I recommend you read the piece, because it is very good but also terrifying.