File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman answers questions during a federal, provincial and territorial health ministers’ meeting in Toronto. The Alberta government is changing its bill on abortion clinics to triple the potential size of the no-protest zones around those buildings.

Alberta changes abortion clinic bill, conservatives still no-shows on votes

EDMONTON — Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government made more changes to its abortion clinic bill Wednesday while the Opposition United Conservatives continued to register their displeasure by walking out en masse during votes.

Government members accepted an amendment from Independent Derek Fildebrandt to specifically include the role of municipal bylaw officers in enforcing the proposed legislation, which mandates no-protest zones around clinics.

However, they rejected a second Fildebrandt motion aimed at ensuring the bill won’t restrict the freedom of the media to cover news events surrounding the clinics.

“I don’t think (privacy of clinic participants) has been abused by the media to date and I don’t think it would be abused in the future, but I think (press freedom) is an important aspect to take note of when we’re writing legislation,” Fildebrandt told the house.

NDP Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen spoke against the amendment.

Jansen, a former journalist, said mainstream journalists already handle the clinics respectfully. But Jansen said some anti-abortionists billing themselves as journalists would use the amendment to breach the no-go zone and harass staff and patients.

“While I appreciate the effort, I will say that I find the implications of this amendment frightening,” Jansen said.

Bill 9 would create minimum 50 metre no-protest zones around abortion clinics.

It would also make it illegal for anyone to harass a doctor by phone, mail or online to convince them to not provide abortion services. Anyone breaking the law would face fines up to $10,000 or a year in jail.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney has said the legislation is unnecessary because abortion clinics already have legal tools at their disposal to deal with protests. He said he and his caucus are abstaining from what they call deliberately political and provocative legislation.

Five of the 25-member UCP caucus sat silently during debate of Fildebrandt’s amendments and walked out when the votes were called.

The UCP has now left the house en masse six times during discussions on Bill 9.

The NDP says the UCP members are failing to meet their responsibilities as legislature members by walking out on an important bill.

Earlier Wednesday during question period, Kenney questioned the government’s sincerity, noting, “Bill 9 is something they did not even think was important enough to mention in their (recent) throne speech let alone their (2015 election) platform.”

The UCP caucus also walked out of the vote late Tuesday night when the government accepted an amendment by NDP backbencher Deborah Drever to increase the safety zones to 150 metres if the proposed minimum of 50 metres doesn’t prove effective.

Fildebrandt argued against it.

He said while he is in favour of legislated protections for women and staff, that must be balanced with respect for freedom of speech.

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