Outcry over graphic flyers in London, Ont., prompts private member’s bill

A photo edited to cover disturbing images on a flyer sent to addresses in London, Ont. via Pro-Choice London/Facebook

A private member’s bill from a London, Ont., MPP is hoping to prevent future heartache and trauma at the mailbox.

London North Centre NDP MPP Terence Kernaghan introduced the bill on Monday, which would require graphic images of aborted or otherwise non-viable fetuses to be contained in an opaque envelope that clearly labels the sender and includes information about the content.

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

The bill, dubbed the Viewer Discretion Act (Images of Fetuses), 2021, comes months after a flyer distribution campaign from the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform first began in the city.

At an event ahead of the introduction of the private member’s bill, Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition co-founder Katie Dean shared her own experience with the flyers.

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She says she saw discussion on a Facebook community group page about the flyers and began to anxiously await when one would reach her door and the painful memories it would stir.

“In 2004, I actually had a medical termination at 19 weeks. There was something very wrong with my daughter so I made a very difficult choice that was the best one for me, my family, and as far as I’m concerned, for my daughter,” she explained.

“It’s the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through.”

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

Dean, co-founder of the Hamilton Road Legal Centre with her husband Jim Dean, says she began to learn more about the group responsible for the flyers as well as signs and posters that move throughout the city.

“I started the VDLC, Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition, developed this huge group of followers and people joining us. We have a rapid response team now, we go on the streets, we cover the signs.”

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Sarah Grossi says not only was she startled by the signs while driving last year in the area of Commissioners Road and Wharncliffe Road, but so was her young son.

“My son was six at the time and he said, ‘What was that scary picture?’ And my social work training kicked in because as a mom who’s suffered a miscarriage, I was reeling, I was processing from what I just saw. And I asked them, ‘What do you think it was?’ And he said it was scary, it was bloody. And he didn’t think that they should have signs like that.”

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She says she turned to social media, in particular to Dean’s page, to determine where the signs would be ahead of time before driving her sons around but that sometimes she’d still pass them and she did her best to warn her children not to look out the windows.

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“My six-year-old knew why, my three-year-old did not. So my son, not wanting his brother to be upset by the images, would try to distract his little brother,” she said.

“I just remember thinking at the time, how is it that the six-year-old child is capable of understanding the damage that these images could cause his little brother and feels the need to protect him from these adults who should know better?”

Grossi says the violent imagery has had a lasting impact, with her son suffering from nightmares.

Read more: London, Ont., group seeks legislative changes in response to graphic anti-abortion flyers

The CCBR, meanwhile, says it has the right to distribute the flyers.

“The Charter clearly protects leafletting as a long standing form of freedom of expression, and the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to freedom of expression protects all non-violent expressive activity, without discrimination based on content,” eastern outreach director Blaise Alleyne told Global News.

“We exercise our Charter-protected right to share photo evidence of the injustice of abortion to call for an end to violence, to call for peace. To treat leaflets differently based on the content of the message would be unconstitutional.”

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Kernaghan says his private member’s bill, which is co-sponsored by his fellow NDP MPPs Teresa Armstrong (London-Fanshawe) and Peggy Sattler (London West), does not limit any group’s ability to distribute the materials, nor does it prevent them from stating their beliefs.

“Children should have the opportunity to receive a warning before involuntarily opening these graphic and gory images of fetuses. People should have that opportunity,” he said.

He also argued that the photos seen on the flyers distributed in London are “misleading or contrary to people’s experiences, because many medical professionals will tell you that what’s displayed on these players and on these signs is not what the common abortion experience looks like or entails.”

While the private member’s bill is specific to flyers, Dean says work is underway to address the posters.

“Lindsay Mathyssen of the NDP, she brought forward a federal petition that was read into the House of Commons, I believe, last week. And we’re waiting to hear back from the federal level government to see if there’s anything that can be done.”

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