Pro-life protest lands Linda Gibbons in jail

  • October 17, 2008

TORONTO - Just two days after being released from a prison in Milton, Ont., at the end of September, longtime pro-life activist Linda Gibbons was ready to return to jail.

And she did, a week later, on Oct. 8. She was to appear before a judge in October.

For Gibbons, time in prison has turned into a pro-life ministry. After being arrested at least a dozen times and spending 75 months in prison over the past 14 years for her silent protests outside abortion clinics in downtown Toronto, the 60-year-old grandmother of five and mother of three said she was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, northeast of Toronto. 

Gibbons and other pro-life protesters are prohibited from carrying on their protests within 60 feet of the Scott Clinic on Gerrard Street East. A 1994 injunction by the Ontario Supreme Court bars pro-life activists from picketing, sidewalk counselling and interfering with access to abortion services or the economic interests of the clinics. Gibbons, however, has chosen to disobey the order and stands near the entrance of the clinic with her sign, walking back and forth and talking to a few passersby. This has led to her frequent imprisonment.

For Gibbons, the abortion issue is personal. As a pregnant 22-year-old young mother with one daughter already, and who was separated from her husband, Gibbons said she felt like she had to choose between staying in college or keeping the baby. So after 13 weeks of pregnancy, Gibbons went into a downtown hospital for an abortion.

“Even though I was reckless in my thinking at that time, there was conscience that came into it. There was a certain sense of shame that you shouldn’t be, you know,” she said.

Gibbons’ protest has taken on a familiar routine. First, there’s the arrest like the one on Oct. 8. Two police officers and two local sheriffs surrounded Gibbons outside the Scott Clinic. Just before she was handcuffed and driven to a nearby police station, they took away her placard with a baby’s face on it that reads: “Why mom? When I have so much to give.” The sheriff then read aloud part of the injunction which Gibbons is accused of disobeying. After the injunction was read and the sheriff handed her the document, Gibbons ripped it in half and continued her silent protest.

There was also an overnight stay at the police station, sleeping on a cement bench in a cell, without socks or shoes, before the court hearing the next day.

Before her October arrest, Gibbons said she was looking forward to starting Bible classes in prison again, which she usually holds in the morning and early evening (and once during a prison lockdown).

Gibbons’ supporters argue that arresting her for protesting peacefully and exercising her freedom of speech is unfair. But the Ontario Supreme Court said in its ruling that there was a reasonable limit on pro-lifers’ freedom of expression outside abortion facilities.

Now, some pro-life activists believe there might be a changing of the tide, leading to a direct challenge to the 14-year-old injunction. In previous arrests, Gibbons had been charged with disobeying a police officer. But on Sept. 30, a judge dismissed charges of obstructing a police officer, saying disobeying a court order does not constitute obstructing justice.

This time, Gibbons is being charged with disobeying a court order.

Gibbons’ advocates say it’s about bringing the focus back to an issue where Canadian lawmakers have fallen silent.

“What Linda is doing is shining a light on the extent to which the state is engaged in protecting an unfettered abortion licence in this country,” said Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League.

Known as the “abortion lady” in jail, Gibbons has several mementos from prison, including a letter from a woman who wrote:

“Dear Linda, I will always remember you not as my cell mate but as an angel brought to me to guide me through this stormy time in my life, you have helped make me stronger and made me realize I did the right thing keeping my baby and being able to find a nice Christian home for my little kickboxer as I would call he.”

As for what keeps her going, Gibbons, a devout Christian, said it’s “the love of God for His own babies.”

Her long-time friend Mary Burnie calls Gibbons “brave” and “determined” for choosing to make sacrifices for the cause. Burnie, now in her 60s, has participated at sit-ins outside the Scott and Morgentaler abortion clinics with Gibbons over the years and said Gibbons’ Oct. 8 arrest was tame compared to a previous encounter with police where at least a dozen police officers showed up.  

Gibbons elicits little sympathy from the other side, however. Maria Corsillo, manager of the Scott Clinic, said Gibbons is “someone who is self-obsessed, obsessed with her own point of view.”

“Would you want someone questioning your right to go to the doctor of your choice, to talk about what you perceive to be your own health problem?” asked Corsillo.

She said the pro-lifers’ behaviour over the years has been threatening to the clinic’s staff and patients, adding that Gibbons is not trained to provide any counselling.

“We don’t do counselling or medical care on the sidewalk and she’s not a licensed health professional,” Corsillo said. “It’s not her job or responsibility to interfere in another person’s medical care. If she’s that worried about free speech, she has it 60 feet away.”

Joanne Dielemen, 72, the former director of Aid to Women, a group which helps pregnant women in Toronto, said not everyone would be prepared to go to prison for what Gibbons does. Dielemen was arrested once with Gibbons during a pro-life sit-in where protesters tried to block the way into an abortion clinic.

“I know some people think it’s a waste of time. It’s not. Even if she doesn’t get anything done with the abortion issue, she is a great missionary in the jail itself,” she said.

As for going to prison for her beliefs, Gibbons said it’s what she’s been called to do.

“People talk about the tension we create in society about the abortion issue,” Gibbons said. “And we’re saying, it’s a necessary tension.”

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