Free expression or false advertising?

By Councillors Catherine McKenney and Jeff Leiper

A woman’s right to choose to access health services in order to terminate a pregnancy is well-enshrined in law and mainstream Canadian opinion.  The struggle to get where we are today came at a great cost to many women whose health, and often whose lives, were sacrificed in order to maintain societal control over women’s bodies.

 Ottawa is a progressive, modern city that upholds the right to equal access to health care for all.  An anti-choice lobby group, however, is now advertising its opposition to abortion on public property, and potentially misleading women seeking help in the process. It’s an issue that keeps re-occurring on transit systems across Canada, and it’s time to put it to rest.  You will recall when the flag was raised at City Hall to commemorate Right to Life Day, it was quickly removed after outrage from residents.  

Recently, after hearing from many residents that they were exceptionally uncomfortable having these ads on their public property, we submitted a Council inquiry to Ottawa city staff to request an update on our ability to reject the types of advertisements being run right now by Ottawa-based Action Life, an anti-choice lobby group.

The ads, which readers may have seen on OC Transpo buses, cite the number of abortions that have been performed in Canada in recent years, with the tag line “Pregnant? Need help?” and a website and phone number. The website is Action Life’s, which offers no counselling services. The phone number is 24-hour crisis line linked to anti-choice advocacy groups.

These messages have no place on our public transit system, nor on any public property. Inviting women who may be vulnerable and in crisis to seek help from anti-choice organizations is perverse, and an attack on the right to choose so hard fought for by Canadians.

In May 2016, Vancouver researchers with a pro-choice coalition studied the purported counselling services offered by anti-choice groups and found that their tactics were misleading and often based on medically incorrect information. A 2010 Toronto Star investigation found many of the same issues. For example, it’s common for anti-choice groups to assert a link between abortion and breast cancer (“resources” related to which are available from Action Life’s website). As most Canadians will recognize, such claims are absurd and have been well-debunked by the medical establishment.

Yet, Action Life’s bus ads invite women to visit a web site that offers no counselling services or call a “crisis line” that they are never told offers a one-sided perspective. This at a time in a woman’s life when she needs impartial medical advice and to understand all of her options.

Bus ads, sold for the City by Pattison Outdoor Advertising, are required by Ottawa’s City Council to conform to the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. Those standards, in a nutshell, require that ads not be misleading. Our inquiry with City staff seeks to find out whether the Action Life ads meet this test. If they don’t, we’d like to know our options for removing them.

We’ve heard the argument that these ads are a form of protected speech and free expression, but 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. If Action Life’s advertisements are found to be misleading because key information is missing from them, they must be removed and not be allowed back on our buses.

At the end of the day, these advertisements are another tactic by anti-choice lobbyists to reverse decades of pro-choice gains. The fact that they are displayed on public property is galling. Abortions today are a legal medical procedure that give women control over their bodies and health. 

Our transit system must remain a safe and welcoming space for everyone, especially women who we know are  more likely to feel unsafe taking transit.  As Council we have an obligation to ensure that this is the case.  Any advertising that is not ‘truthful, fair and accurate’ does not meet the basic criteria set out by the Canadian Code of Advertising standards can not be condoned on our public transit.

The City will soon reply to our inquiry. We believe that the answers provided will give us the legal grounds to remove these ads and ensure they never come back. We know residents are watching us hopeful that City Hall makes the right choice.

Catherine McKenney