This could be a free speech story, or a pro-life story, or just a story about plain old perseverance. You decide.
Earlier this year, abortion provider Henry Morgentaler got his Order of Canada. A lot of people hated the idea, but whether or not one approves of what he was doing — full disclosure, I do not — one has to concede he believed in it strongly enough to go to jail, rather than yield. If you agree with him, he’s a brave man.
If you don’t agree with him, you should still allow he has the courage of his convictions, and this martyr factor is part of what makes him so appealing to his supporters.
What then shall we say of pro-life activist Linda Gibbons, who has spent 75 months of the last 14 years in jail for protesting Morgentaler’s trade? After all, it’s a mirror image. When abortion was against the law, one man challenged it and in the end, was acclaimed for it.
Then the law changed. Not only did abortion on demand become legal, it also became illegal in many places to stand outside clinics where they were done, to say, “this is wrong.” In Toronto, it became illegal to stand near the door, whether you said anything or not.
Responding to this obvious limitation of free-speech rights, pro-lifers refer to these bubble zones as speech-free zones.
But, Gibbons was just as sure abortion was wrong, as Morgentaler was that it was right.
So she kept showing up, being arrested, going to jail, and because she wouldn’t promise not to go back to her spot on the sidewalk, stayed there for years.
It is important to understand Gibbons, a frail woman of 60 who reportedly weighs all of 100 pounds, is totally non-violent. On none of the dozen occasions she was arrested, did she resist. She would, however, speak to women entering the clinic.
The need to care for elderly parents took her off the front line for a few years, but eventually she was back, silently walking up and down outside a Toronto abortion clinic.
As on other occasions, she was charged with obstructing a peace officer.
This past Tuesday though, and unlike former occasions, she was acquitted. A Toronto provincial court judge decided her non-violence and non-resistance could not be construed as obstructing a peace officer in the performance of his duties.
The judge added that a charge of disobeying a court order might have stuck, but as that wasn’t the charge, home she went. That’s an interesting development by the way: Should she be so charged, she could have a jury trial.
Who knows what 12 of her peers might make of it? After all, even if they’re not pro-lifers, they would have to consider some of the ironies here.
There’s the free speech aspect, for instance. If she was a union militant involved in a strike, she could be as shrill as she liked. In this country, police stand back while truckers get their windows smashed. So what exactly is the problem if she quietly approaches a woman heading to an abortion clinic? Ah, says the other side, nobody should interfere with another’s health care.
True. But the woman is pregnant, not sick. Given the bloody reality of abortion, asking somebody if they really know what they’re up to seems fair.
In fact, it should be the law. In a piece he wrote about Gibbons several years ago, columnist Michael Coren spoke of meeting a woman with a beautiful little girl, whom Gibbons had talked out of an abortion right at the clinic. That three-year-old sweetie owes her life to one thing, that Linda Gibbons spoke to her mother.
Then there’s the penalty. Whenever the peaceable Gibbons was sentenced, she’d get six months. Then, she’d end up in a cell with a woman doing half that for a violent assault.
How smart is that? Or just? Gibbons then, as much as Morgentaler, has the courage of her convictions. The difference between her courage and Morgentaler’s though, is that he was swimming with a changing tide that would sweep him ashore.
She is not. That she goes on, without the comfort of a cheering section in press and Parliament, says a lot about her faith.
As Andrea Mrozek, of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada puts it, for all the pro-choice fear mongering about pro-lifers wanting to send women to jail, there’s only one woman in jail in this country on this issue — and it’s because she’s pro-life.
Well, for now she’s out. I don’t know her, but I think I like Linda Gibbons. Talk about sticking to your guns: 14 years, no less. No Order of Canada for her, of course. They’re just for people who swim in the right direction. But, whether as a pro-lifer, or a free-speecher, she deserves one.
Nigel Hannaford is a columnist for the Calgary Herald. This article has been reprinted with permission.