Examining Spaces that Should be Safe from Anti-Choice Rhetoric

By Jenn Miller

When is it “going too far” to expose children (and others) to graphic and gruesome photos of alleged aborted fetuses? Surely, we can all agree that this is inappropriate at school, where there is an expectation of physical and psychological safety. What about fairs, children’s festivals, and other places where kids are supposed to have fun and live those fleeting moments of sweet childhood innocence?  

Unfortunately, many anti-choice and right-to-life groups do not agree, and they choose to target schools, fairs, and festivals to spread their message and show children horrific and upsetting images of what they claim to be aborted fetuses. In fact, the anti-choice group the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) is known to display graphic signs (usually large ones) outside of high schools and attend family-friendly events such as the Calgary Stampede.[i] Believe it or not, there is little-to-no recourse for displaying these images despite the extreme distress they cause among adults and children alike.

The Role of Ad Standards

When we view upsetting or inappropriate images, we have the option of making a complaint under Ad Standards. However, Ad Standards will no longer accept, process, or investigate complaints regarding graphic anti-abortion images. As per Ad Standards:

“Please do not complain to Ad Standards about graphic images of aborted fetuses, as the agency has already issued three decisions against them and does not take further complaints. The only enforcement mechanism that Ad Standards has is to ask the anti-choice group not to use the graphic images anymore, but the groups responsible for [them] refuse to comply.”[ii]

So, while there is no way to put a stop to the display of graphic images, Ad Standards still supports the function of taking complaints about anti-choice messages and ads that DO NOT contain graphic imagery. In London, Ontario, the Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition (VDLC) was successful in passing a city-wide by-law[iii] that prohibits the distribution to private homes/residences of anti-choice material that contains graphic imagery unless it is contained in an envelope or folder that contains a warning so that the recipient can choose to view the material (or not). The by-law only covers distributed materials and doesn’t include signage, billboards, or bus ads. And unfortunately, the by-law only applies to London, ON. The CCBR and other anti-choice groups can and continue to, do whatever they want with no repercussion in many other areas.

When does Anti-Choice Messaging go too Far?

Despite the slippery legality of distributing anti-choice material (including that which includes graphic imagery), it is still reasonable to expect areas where children congregate to remain free from anti-choice rhetoric, including literature, billboards, signage, bus ads, and so on. However, anti-choice groups are actively targeting high schools and even elementary schools. In 2021, grade eight students in Woodstock were given the assignment to design a poster with the theme “Unborn Babies Matter.”[iv] Posters were going to be both graded and entered in a contest sponsored by none other than the Right to Life Coalition. Even more problematic is the fact that the Right to Life Coalition was offering a cash incentive for participation. There were no lessons and no information available to offer students any other perspectives around choice.

Likewise, in Sudbury, an anti-choice bus ad was placed on the main line – which goes directly past the local hospital. The hospital in question is a designated safe access zone, which makes displaying anti-choice messages and protesting abortion illegal within 150 m; yet, complaints to have the ad removed went unheard.[v] When CCBR tried to place an ad on a Peterborough bus, the City of Peterborough refused.[vi] The CCBR responded with a Charter of Rights complaint, stating that, “speaking about abortion does not negate our right to free speech.”

If sponsoring contests at elementary schools and placing bus ads knowing that they’ll pass through safe access zones doesn’t seem to take anti-choice messaging too far, what about displaying large, gruesome, and upsetting photos directly outside of a high school? In 2021 an unnamed Woodstock high school was subjected to the images much to the great upset of students, staff, and parents alike. There are pictures of this below but be warned: the graphic imagery is on full display – view at your own discretion.

Fighting Anti-Choice Messages

There needs to be a reasonable expectation of safety at places where children are present, including fairs, schools, festivals, and other kid and family-friendly locales. This needs to extend beyond safe access zones, which only protect medical clinics, clinic staff, and clinic staff’s homes, and ONLY when the hospital applies for and is granted, safe access zone status. There needs to be a social understanding of where this kind of rhetoric is simply unwelcome and inappropriate. Anti-choice groups go too far when they target schools and family-friendly events.

Although Ad Standards has let us down by refusing to handle complaints around graphic imagery, they can still help. If you see an anti-choice ad that upsets you or that you feel is inappropriate for the venue or location, you can still report it to Ad Standards provided it doesn’t contain graphic imagery. If you’re in London, ON, you can report graphic images under the Graphic Imagery Distribution by-law by emailing enforcement@london.ca, but only those that are delivered (to your mailbox or handed to you) to private homes/residences.

Making a complaint when you see something upsetting is a good start, but what’s even better is taking strides to prevent anti-choice rhetoric from invading spaces where it’s simply not acceptable. One way to do that is to start a petition in your area to force groups like CCBR to censor graphic images and keep them (and other anti-choice messages) out of schools. To get a petition started, reach out to us at vdlc_ontario@gmail.com or find us on Facebook

VDLC is working hard to get a second reading for the Graphic Imagery Distribution proposed provincial law so that all graphic material that is distributed across the province of Ontario must be censored and accompanied by a warning that enables recipients to choose whether to view it or not. Do you want to help us be heard? Sign our Provincial Petition here – www.vdlclondon.ca

Let’s stand together to create change.

[i] Take action against aborted fetuses in public! Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, July 9, 2022 (First written in 2017) PDF DOCUMENT

[ii] ‘Submitting Complaints Against Anti-Choice Ads’. Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, https://www.arcc-cdac.ca/submitting-ad-complaints/. Accessed 21 Sept. 2022.

[iii] Graphic Image Delivery By-Law – PW-14 | City of London. https://london.ca/by-laws/graphic-image-delivery-law-pw-14. Accessed 21 Sept. 2022.

[iv] News ·, Kate Dubinski ·. CBC. ‘Ontario Mom Furious Grade 8 Assignment Requires Students to Make Posters for Anti-Abortion Group’s Contest | CBC News’. CBC, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/mom-furious-students-making-anti-abortion-posters-london-1.6426019. Accessed 21 Sept. 2022.

[v] ‘Anti-Abortion Bus Ad Angers Many but City Says Its Hands Are Tied’. Sudbury.Com, https://www.sudbury.com/local-news/anti-abortion-bus-ad-angers-many-but-city-says-its-hands-are-tied-3297940. Accessed 21 Sept. 2022.

[vi] ‘Pro-Life Group Fights City Ban on Anti-Abortion Bus Ad’. Thepeterboroughexaminer.Com, 22 Feb. 2016, https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/news/peterborough-region/2016/02/22/pro-life-group-fights-city-ban-on-anti-abortion-bus-ad.html.