A decision by Ad Standards that ruled a pro-life billboard stating, “Canada has no abortion laws” has been upheld by an Appeal Panel. In a letter received by We Need a Law on October 16, 2018, the Vice President of Ad Standards, offered no reasons as to why the pro-life advertisement contravened the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
“We’re not only disappointed in the result, but also in the process,” said Tabitha Ewert, legal counsel for We Need a Law. “At no point in this entire process have they been able to show how our billboard violates the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. They’ve just relied on vague assertions.”
ASC, a self-regulating body that enforces the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, ruled on the billboard after complaints were submitted with encouragement from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada – a pro-abortion activist organization.
“We put up a message that is true,” said Ewert. “Not only that, it’s a statement frequently said by those on all sides of this issue. Yet we’ve received a decision that says it’s inaccurate. The council said the billboard message is inaccurate but has failed to point to a single law. This decision gives us no direction whatsoever.”
Ad Standards provided no indication which complaints they upheld even though the different complaints alleged very different things.
“We asked Ad Standards repeatedly to provide us with practical suggestions on how to correct this going forward but have yet to receive any. And we’ve been told that this “message” must be taken down wherever it is displayed,” said Ewert. “As a self-regulatory body Ad Standards has no authority to tell us to do anything, and we find their approach to be extremely unhelpful as we move forward.”
This ruling goes against ASC’s 2008 decision against another pro-life billboard that implied that abortion was legally permitted in Canada. In that case ASC stated, “The Canadian Government has not, through legislation or otherwise, declared that abortions were either legal or illegal.” In their latest ruling they contradict this saying “binding Canadian law that permits abortion in Canada does, in fact, currently exist.”
“Which is it? You can’t reconcile the two rulings.” Ewert asked. “And ASC refuses to give us practical direction.”
The contradictory nature of the rulings shows that it is not about the accuracy of the message, but about who is saying it. “The irony is that pro-abortion activists often tout the fact that Canada has no abortion law, but now, when we are the ones saying it, they are using Ad Standards to censor our organization,” said Ewert. Ad Standards suggested there are “regulations imposed by Canadian authorities”, but they did not provide any sources.
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In fact, prior to putting up these billboards, a representative from We Need a Law called the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario to clarify what abortion regulations they had in place. They were quick to point out that, “The CPSO doesn’t have a policy about abortion.” We received similar confirmation from the College in Nova Scotia.
When the billboards went up at the beginning of August, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada took to social media encouraging people to complain, whether they had seen the billboard or not, and gave them detailed instructions on how to submit complaints to ASC.
“This decision is one in a series of rulings over the years that seem to show a willingness to be used by abortion activists to censor pro-life organizations,” said Tabitha Ewert, legal counsel for We Need a Law. “And after this, we have no idea what will happen with our next ad. What can we say about the legal state of abortion? ASC refuses to give us guidance.”
We Need a Law entered into a contract with Pattison Outdoor to install over thirty billboards across Canada this summer. Polls indicate that up to 77% of Canadians are unaware that Canada has no abortion laws.
“We believe that truth in advertising is very important,” stressed Ewert. “That’s why we created a billboard with a simple, truthful statement. The fact that ASC has been inconsistent in their rulings shows an organization heavily influenced by activist pressure rather than the neutral self-regulatory body they purport to be,” continued Ewert. “In the past they ruled against a pro-life ad for suggesting there was a law, and now they are ruling against our message because we are saying there is no law! We hope they will recognize their error and be willing to correct it.”
“Nothing has changed in the legal system regarding abortion in the last 10 years. Canada still has no abortion law,” Ewert pointed out. “This inconsistency is a sad reflection on the integrity of the organization relied on to ensure fair and accurate advertising in Canada.”