It is 7:30am on a Tuesday morning, as most of you are on your way to work, I’m on my way to the Morgentaler Clinic in downtown Fredericton. Every Tuesday morning I volunteer as a clinic escort to make sure that the patients who arrive at the clinic not only get there safely, but to also be a friendly face that lets them know that we support them.
The clinic currently does not have a bubble zone, and this means that the protesters that picket outside are not only able to be on the same side of the street as the clinic, on the sidewalk, but that they are also able to “interact” with the patients. While I will admit, that we are lucky, the protesters aren’t at all violent, at least not physically, they can be, and generally are, very verbally abusive to the patients.
Something I’ve always wondered is when does one’s right to freedom of speech cross the line and become harassment? Is it when the protesters hurl hurtful comments at the patients, such as “there are other choices that you need to know about, you don’t need to kill you baby,” “you are giving into the death culture,” “choose life and give your baby up for adoption.”
Or is it when they follow women to the clinic steps, hurling these same hurtful comments? Yes, yes, all yes. These people think they are helping women, but all they are doing is hurting them, shaming them and making them feel guilty. Why is this allowed? What can we say about a society that allows people to harass women who are going to a clinic, while claiming that it is freedom of speech?
There are two instances, from a couple of different shifts that stick out in my mind as harassment, pure and simple. One morning, near the end of the shift, another escort and myself were chatting at the back of the clinic, we looked over and saw two young ladies trying to scale the fence that separated the clinic and the anti-choicer’s headquarters. We walked over to them and told them that they would have to walk back around to the front of the clinic, they understandably looked apprehensive, as they probably didn’t want to deal with the protesters, and that was why they had tried to scale the fence in the first place.
We let the escorts at the front of the clinic know that they were coming, but unfortunately the protesters got to the girls before we did. It was an ambush, three or four protesters surrounded them, the escorts ran to try and get in there and help them. We finally got a hold of the girls and sheltered them from the protesters as we walked them to the clinic. After we got them safely inside the clinic the protesters started telling us that we had been trespassing on their property when we went for the girls, and that they were going to call the cops on us. As far as I know nothing happened, and it was simply an empty threat.
Another incident that stands out to me, and infuriates me, happened a few weeks ago. A couple of patients were dropped off on the opposite side of the clinic, two girls got out of the car. The protesters saw them, and got to them before the escorts did. As soon as the escorts were at their side they started walking towards the clinic, with the protesters at their heels. All I could hear was “we’re so sorry, please try to ignore them,” along with “please come see us next door, we can help you, there are other options that you need to be aware of.” The protesters followed the patients and escorts to the step of the clinic, as they can’t go any further than that, all the while they were hurling comments at these women, harassing them.
I draw the line here between harassment and freedom of speech. I don’t like it, nor do I agree with them standing outside of the clinic with their signs, however, at least when they stand there quietly they aren’t bothering or hurting anyone. However, when they begin to follow and interact with the patients, I believe that they are no longer practicing freedom of speech, but they have crossed the line into the realm of harassment. This is unacceptable behaviour, and I fully believe that if these people were harassing someone who was simply getting a heart transplant or something that isn’t as controversial as abortion, something would be done about it. And it’s a damn shame that nothing is currently being done about it, and that nothing will probably ever be done about it.
Jaden Fitzherbert is an anti-choice activist in NB.