TORONTO—The latest arrest of pro-life activist Linda Gibbons has underscored the Canadian pro-life movement's ongoing struggle against injunctions limiting right to life demonstrations.
Gibbons, one of Canada's leading pro-life activists, and two supporters were arrested Sept. 9 for picketing outside a Toronto abortion clinic. It marked the 10th time since the fall of 1994 that Gibbons has been arrested for her pro-life activity.
Often compared to U.S. pro-life campaigner Joan Andrews-Bell, Gibbons refuses to abide by the terms of a “temporary” injunction initiated by Ontario's New Democratic Party (NDP) which governed the province from 1990 to 1995. The NDP made access to abortion services one of its top priorities during its five-year rule in Ontario.
The injunction prohibits pro-life demonstrations, including the displaying of posters and placards, within 500 feet of Ontario abortion clinics. Under the injunction, activities as harmless as prayer vigils or hymn singing are regarded as obstructions to women seeking abortions.
The legislation is similar to that imposed in British Columbia, and prolifers coast to coast have waged a running battle to have both the injunctions lifted. The British Columbia case centers on the Everywomen's Health Clinic in Vancouver, the focal point of west coast pro-life action.
While pro-abortion groups and some Canadian attorneys general argue that the injunctions are necessary to prevent violence near abortion clinics, pro-life supporters have long contended that they are in fact a gross infringement of freedom of speech and religion. They also say the injunctions would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the governments of both Ontario and British Columbia have manipulated the charges against Gibbons and other pro-lifers to avoid bringing the injunctions up against Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In the Ontario case, the Toronto police and the provincial attorney general's office insist on charging Gibbons and other pro-lifers with obstructing a police officer rather than violating the terms of the injunction. Many believe these lesser charges are the Crown's way of ensuring that the unconstitutionality of the injunction does not come to light.
Although the NDP was defeated in provincial elections of 1995, the current Progressive Conservative government of Ontario has so far refused to lift the injunction. Despite numerous appeals from the pro-life community, Ontario Attorney General Charles Harnick has indicated that he will not take any action on the injunction while the matter is before the courts.
Ontario pro-lifers are continually bewildered by the attorney general's action. During the 1995 provincial election campaign, Harnick described the former government's injunction as a clear violation of free speech. After more than three years in power, however, he has refused to take action to rescind the injunction. “I am satisfied that any limits on freedom of expression which the injunction may have imposed are justified in the interest of public safety and the safe provision of medical service,” Harnick said recently to officials with Ontario's Campaign Life Coalition.
In a statement just after the latest arrest of Gibbons, the Campaign Life Coalition reiterated its charges that the province is playing legal games with the injunction.
“This situation is a serious abuse of legal process in which the Toronto police and the Ontario attorney general appear to be directed by abortion clinic staff and to bypass normal legal processes to avoid any interference with clinic abortion activity,” said Campaign Life national president James Hughes.
Sources within Campaign Life Coalition have recently expressed concern that instead of lifting the former government's “temporary” injunction, the Progressive Conservatives are considering a plan to make it permanent.
Complicating the situation is a lawsuit initiated by the former NDP government against a group of 18 prominent pro-lifers in Ontario. The lawsuit, which seeks $500,000 in damages from the group, threatens the province's pro-life organizations with financial ruin.
Gibbons meanwhile, who has spend the better part of the past four years in prison, continues to adopt a unique and sometimes controversial tactic in bringing public attention to the Ontario injunction. Upon her release from jail, she takes a day or two to recuperate before returning to one of Toronto's major abortion clinics to resume her pro-life witnessing. She remains completely silent during her action, and during subsequent jail time and court appearances. Her silence is designed to offer “mute testimony” on behalf of the innocent and defenseless unborn children who are killed at abortion clinics.
While some Canadian pro-lifers have suggested Gibbons' action brings disrepute on the movement, many others have praised her courage and conviction in fighting what she believes is an unjust injunction. Her action has attracted high profile legal support, including John Broderick of New York, the attorney who defended the Lambs of Christ pro-life activists in the late 1980s. Gibbons has also earned praise for bringing the pro-life message to her fellow inmates at women's prisons in the Toronto area. In nearly half a dozen cases, Gibbons has urged pregnant inmates not to proceed with abortion plans, but to offer their children up for adoption.
“She is one of the finest examples of living the Christian social gospel we have today,” said Rev. Ken Campbell of Milton, Ontario, an Evangelical minister who has become one of Gibbons' greatest supporters. Rev. Campbell has also been arrested several times for walking with Gibbons in her pro-life pickets.
In a much publicized “letter from prison,” Gibbons explained some of her motivations. “Although the pro-life effort consists of various specializations, each member shares and supports the common goals and aspirations of the body at large. Pro-life activity is not merely a sympathetic gesture towards the victims of the current death culture, but a wholehearted demonstration of our love towards each and every human life, from conception to natural death.”
While Gibbons remains a symbol of inspiration for many Canadian pro-lifer supporters, there remains deep concern about the future of high profile witnessing against abortion in the country. Canadian pro-lifers worry that such high profile efforts have been seriously undermined by the court injunctions. Without a legitimate venue for bringing up the respect for life message on the public agenda, they fear not only the trampling of the freedom of speech and religion guarantees, but also a growing tolerance of the activity going on behind abortion clinic walls.
Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto.