Ottawa Citizen: Anti-abortion ad on Ottawa bus angers two councillors


An OC Transpo bus ad from an anti-abortion lobby group has raised the ire of two Ottawa councillors who are demanding the sign be removed.

The ad from Action Life Ottawa, recently seen on the back of city buses, reads: “1969-2019: More than 4 million abortions in Canada” and asks the

questions, “Pregnant? Need help?” followed by a website and phone number to contact.

Councillors Catherine McKenney and Jeff Leiper said they have made an inquiry to the city about removing the ad, claiming that it violates Canadian advertising standards by being purposely misleading and affecting women’s health.

The way the ad is designed implies that women will be directed to counselling if they call the number, McKenney said. “And what the number leads you to are advocacy groups that are anti-choice and very much misleading and have no place on our public transit system,” she said.

In a statement released last week, McKenney and Leiper describe the ad as a tactic to “reverse decades of pro-choice gains.”
“The fact that they are displayed on public property is galling,” they write.

The city requires ads to conform to the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, which says an ad must not be misleading in any way.

McKenney believes the ad is entirely dishonest.

“It asks women who are pregnant if they need help to call a certain number. And that would imply that they will help you and that implies counselling,” she said. “Our argument here is that this ad is in fact not truthful.”

Pattison Outdoor Advertising, which sells the ad, declined to comment.

Louise Harbour, executive director of Action Life, said she is confused as to why the councillors object to the ad.

“We have not presented ourselves as a counselling service or as a pregnancy support service which is why we don’t use our own telephone number,” she said. “We direct women to where they can find help at this national help line number. And we’ve used that number for many, many years.”

The 24-hour helpline number belongs to the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Winnipeg. The centre openly takes an anti-abortion stance, but claims not to pressure women to carry a pregnancy to full-term.
The centre’s number was also used in a similar OC Transpo bus ad by Action Life in 2016, which provoked outrage on social media. The 2016 ad read “Abortion stops a beating heart,” and provided the same number and website to contact.

The tagline has been changed to mark 50 years of legal abortion in Canada, Harbour said. “So this is twofold. I’m not sure how many Canadians are aware of abortion law in Canada and how long it’s been available. And we also wanted women to have the information. We believe women have the right to know that pregnancy and support centres exist in Canada and I don’t see why anybody would object to them.”

Leiper and McKenney say in their statement that during pregnancy, it is crucial that women receive impartial medical advice. To McKenney, this makes the ad an issue of public health.

“If we put something out on public property to counsel women on their health no matter what that is, it has to be something that we can stand behind as a city,” she said. This is especially important when the targeted audience is vulnerable, she said.

Leiper and McKenney said they believe the removal of the ad would not conflict with Canadians’ freedom of speech rights, and caution residents against “lazy reasoning.”

“Charter rights to free speech are important, but it’s never acceptable to interfere with the constitutionally protected right to access health care,” they write.

In an email, Pat Scrimgeour, the city’s director of transit systems and planning, said: “OC Transpo does not endorse or take a position with respect to the contents or products featured in advertisements.”

Advertisements are managed by the contractor, who determines if the ad complies or violates the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, he said.

The councillors said they expect the city will tell them what their options are within the next two weeks.

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