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Anti-abortion ads pulled in 2018 are back on London, Ont. buses following settlement

The ads, pulled in 2018, were reinstated this week. We Need A Law/Facebook

For 45 days, advertisements stating “Canada has no abortion laws” — a claim found to be “inaccurate and misleading” by Advertising Standards Canada — will be visible on some London Transit Commission buses following a settlement with the groups We Need A Law and ARPA Oxford.

The reinstatement of the ads comes amid controversy involving a separate group, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.

In that case, the city has been fielding complaints about the graphic nature of the unsolicited anti-abortion flyers from CCBR and London Against Abortion. Earlier this week, a city committee endorsed a motion that, if approved by council, would see city staff investigate ways to address the issue, including the potential for changes to bylaws or the introduction of a new bylaw.

Read more: London, Ont., councillors seeking options to address graphic anti-abortion flyers

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We Need A Law announced in January of this year that it and ARPA Oxford were “taking the City of London to court” over the 2018 decision to pull the bus advertisements. The group announced the settlement on Monday.

LTC general manager Kelly Paleczny says the advertisements were removed two years ago following complaints to Advertising Standards Canada (Ad Standards), but said ARPA Oxford was not provided with the opportunity to respond to the issues raised in the complaints.

“As a public body, the LTC’s decisions are subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Since the LTC has deemed it beneficial to allow advertisement on its property for the purpose of creating revenue, it cannot limit the freedom of expression of advertisers, except as permitted by the Charter,” Paleczny said in a statement.

“As such, the LTC and ARPA have agreed that the advertisements will be reposted. Further, the LTC has implemented a new policy with respect to advertising.”

Robyn Schwarz of Pro-Choice London told Global News the decision does not respect the Ad Standards ruling.

“Pro-Choice London is disappointed to see that these misleading and inaccurate ads are back on the LTC buses. Buses are public spaces and folks accessing transit in London deserve to feel safe in our community. We encourage folks to speak out and will be providing avenues for people to do that on our Facebook page in the coming days,” she said.

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“We know abortion is health care. We continue to be proud that Canadian law reflects this fact. We treat it like any other medical procedure in this country. Abortion care is regulated by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, like all reproductive healthcare.”

Read more: Trudeau rejects criticism over Paris attack comments, says Canada defends free speech

Tabitha Ewert, legal counsel for We Need a Law, calls the settlement a “win-win.”

“We were disappointed when (the advertisements) were originally taken down two years ago, but this settlement with the London Transit Commission gives both the pro-life movement the freedom to express our beliefs and also gives the City of London the opportunity to prove itself a place that welcomes discussion even on contentious issues.”

However, Ad Standards told Global News that We Need A Law advertisements claiming “Canada has no abortion laws” were found to have violated the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards for being “inaccurate and misleading” in a case in Nova Scotia.

As well, after We Need A Law filed an appeal, Ad Standards says the appeal panel affirmed the original decision.

“We cannot specifically comment on any private arrangement that may now be in place with the City of London concerning the claim ‘Canada Has No Abortion Laws,'” a spokesperson said in an email.

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“We refer you to the decision on this matter by our Standards Council which found the claim in question to be misleading because the current state of the law is not silent on abortion and, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Morgentaler decision, abortion is legal.”

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Ad Standards, which describes itself as a not-for-profit, self-regulatory organization for the advertising industry, says the choice to comply with a decision by its Standards Council is voluntary, though “the vast majority (exceeding 90 per cent) of our cases result in the voluntary amendment or withdrawal of advertising that is found to violate” its Code.

“The Code does not prohibit or restrict any particular position or argument, provided that in communicating its message the ad complies with the standards of truthful, fair, and accurate advertising prescribed under the Code. We understand the difficult decisions sometimes faced by municipalities to balance their obligations of freedom of speech under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and compliance with the standards the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards requires.”

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Read more: Graphic anti-abortion posters spotted in Toronto: As a parent, what can you do? (2018)

Ad Standards also provided Global News with its decision on complaints over the graphic pamphlets and flyers distributed by CCBR in the Greater Toronto Area, a situation London currently finds itself in.

“Since our self-regulatory system relies on the voluntary compliance of the advertiser, we have no ability to take further enforcement measures concerning the flyers that are now being distributed to London homes, other than to publish our decision which found that (in) ‘highly graphic and disturbing images, the advertiser displayed obvious indifference to conduct or attitudes that offend the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population.'”

The bus advertisements are scheduled to run for 45 days.

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