It’s the ugly reality that an 83-year-old priest could be taken into custody for democratically and  peacefully expressing his right to speak out against abortion, Stockland writes. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Peter Stockland: Irish should learn lesson from Canada

  • January 15, 2019

As predictably as rain falling in Dublin, Irish pro-abortion stalwarts are already agitating for so-called exclusion zones around health facilities where the life-ending procedure is performed.

With equal predictability, they insist that what we in Canada call “bubble zones” won’t interfere with Ireland’s freedom of speech.

“Exclusion zones don’t mean people cannot protest,” tweeted Simon Harris, head of a group called Amnesty Ireland, ironically billed as the country’s largest human rights organization. “But they must do so in a way that doesn’t interfere with another person’s right to access a lawful health service.”

Yet Ailbhe Smyth, part of the successful “yes” campaign in last year’s referendum to overturn the Irish constitutional prohibition on abortion, is already warning that protests outside clinics and hospitals are by their very nature a form of harassment regardless of how peaceful or non-intrusive demonstrators might be.

Only handfuls of pro-life pickets reportedly turned out at a few facilities after the new Irish abortion law took effect Jan. 1, but that was enough to begin all-too-familiar pressure being placed on Irish politicians, followed by doubtless sincere but equally obvious assurances that freedoms would be protected.

Watching from this side of the Atlantic, I couldn’t help wondering what might happen when the Canadian experience is repeated in once staunchly Catholic Ireland, and a priest is scooped up off the street, arrested and charged for the dastardly crime of carrying a protest sign inside an abortion clinic bubble zone. I can only pray it won’t be met with the same degree of frightful apathy and chilling silence that has greeted Fr. Tony Van Hee’s legal ordeal in Canada’s national capital.

Van Hee is scheduled to appear in an Ottawa court later this month to set a trial date on charges stemming from his Oct. 24 arrest outside the capital’s Morgentaler clinic. However, the Crown is adding two new counts against Van Hee under Ontario’s Safe Access to Abortion Services Act. He’ll be charged with providing information prohibited by the Act and with voicing disapproval of abortion contrary to the law. A charge of “attempting to intimidate” will be dropped.

I’m told it’s highly unlikely he’ll see the inside of a courtroom for the purposes of a trial until the end of this year, or even early 2020. Ottawa lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with a challenge under the Charter of Rights to the validity of the Ontario bubble zone law. In the event the challenge succeeds, and provisions within the law applicable to Van Hee are struck down, the criminal case against him would obviously collapse. 

There’s something that should alarm every Canadian about his case. It’s the ugly reality that an 83-year-old priest could be taken into custody for democratically and  peacefully expressing his right to speak out against abortion.

After all, the offending sign that Van Hee carried didn’t even mention abortion. It simply protested the loss of free speech inherent in Ontario’s so-called Safe Access law.

Merely for carrying a sign saying, “The Primacy of Free Speech: The Cornerstone of Western Civilization,” he faces at least a year awaiting trial and possible punishment of six months in prison or a $5,000 fine. No wonder those responsible for prosecuting him dropped the original “attempting to intimidate” charge. Perhaps they caught sight of themselves in a mirror and realized what true intimidation, carried out with the monopoly power of the State, can look like.

From the beginning, bubble zone laws have been fraught with the peril of potential abuse. However valid their origins as a means to protect from physical harassment women seeking abortions, it was clear from the outset that they were also an attempt to not just to win the legal battle for abortion but, much more, to silence the very act of speaking out against it.

Let us hope the Irish eyes are still open to the terrible, yet utterly predictable, dangers that represents.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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