Sarah Robertson advocated for “The Safe Access to Abortion Services Act,” which came into effect on February 1 in Ontario. The new law provides, among other things, a 50-metre “bubble zone”around the province’s abortion clinics. These spaces must be kept free of protest, helping to protect patients from harassment. The act also enforces a 150-metre safety zone around the homes of clinic staff. However, the Kitchener, Ont., resident acknowledges that pro-choice advocacy still comes with some risk.
“Pro-choice supporters are regularly subjected to slurs, spitting and even an occasional cup of coffee thrown at them,” Roberson shares. She says she’s been targeted numerous times, even at her home. The long-time pro-choice advocate discloses she has filed numerous police reports, including when she found animal organs in her mailbox and the word “murderer” spray-painted on her front lawn.
The most recent “attacks” occurred when Robertson travelled to Ottawa on January 29. She was there for a few days to receive an award from the Hon. Harinder Malhi, Ontario’s Minister of the Status of Women, in recognition of Robertson’s dedication to reproductive rights. While in the capital, she also took the time to peacefully stand outside Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic, wearing her usual “I don’t regret my abortion” sign.
“I demonstrate to support the rights of those seeking abortions,” says Robertson. “I object to what pro-lifers do and say to people who enter and exit the clinics.”
While she was outside the clinic, Robertson says she noticed a man video-recording her from across the street. She says this is a common intimidation tactic. He apparently later shared the video on Facebook and tagged her personally in the post, a practice she explains identifies her to other pro-life supporters. Video-recording people entering and exiting abortion clinics is now illegal with the new law, but the legislation doesn’t extend to demonstrators outside the bubble zone.
Robertson felt uneasy when a woman who was standing with the man followed her to a nearby café and stood outside watching her while she had a coffee. “I felt uncomfortable; like I needed to be extra cautious,” she remembers. “So I entered the CBC building attached to the café and asked security if I could have my ride pick me up at a back door. Thankfully security agreed.”
When Robertson got back to her hotel that same day, she was irritated to find anti-abortion and biblical references written on the door of her room. Staff at the hotel confirm she changed rooms that evening, only to have similar graffiti appear on the door of her new room two more times. The most disturbing message read like a threat: “Repent murdering wh–e, or die.”
“The people that do this stuff are careful; they operate in a way that makes it hard to trace them, or they do things that are annoying and intimidating, but not illegal. There’s not much the police can do in most cases,” Robertson says. The police took reports about the graffiti, but the hotel cameras weren’t working and no arrests were made.
Johanne Brownrigg works at the Ottawa bureau of Campaign Life Coalition, arguably Canada’s biggest pro-life organization. “Certainly no pro-lifer that I’ve ever met would participate in graffiti let alone make threats,” asserts Brownrigg when asked about the incidents in Robertson’s hotel. Brownrigg also advised via email that the coalition would continue “being a voice for the voiceless” even with the new law.
Jacki Yovanoff, a sex educator and pro-choice advocate from Waterloo, Ont., can relate to Robertson’s experiences – she and her partner have found screws in their vehicle tires. And, like Robertson, she feels the new law is necessary and an excellent start.
“Pro-choice supporters don’t want more abortions. If anything, we’d love a world without abortion, but that’s not realistic,” says Yovanoff, who attends Westminster United church. “What we want is education about sex, and safe access to abortions, which includes emotionally safe, harassment-free entry and exit at abortion clinics.”
For her part, Robertson says she won’t let recent incidents stop her from advocating when pro-life demonstrators are out in force – despite the possible risks. Even with the new law, she wants those accessing abortion clinics to know somebody is there to support, not harass, them.