As graphic antiabortion ads go, the sign was fairly tame. The problem was the location.
Although the Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) believes gruesome images of aborted fetuses can jar people into becoming abortion opponents, the organization's ad campaign in Grande Prairie, Alberta, had no blood or gore.
But the CCBR wanted to post the ads on buses in the Canadian city. That meant anyone glancing at a passing bus would see pictures of fetuses along with a phrase: “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN.”
City officials rejected the ad, launching a two-year court battle that pitted the CCBR's right to freedom of expression against the city's authority to decide what's inappropriate to paste on the side of a municipal bus.
Last month, an appeals court judge ruled in the city's favor — a decision that could guide other Canadian cities engaged in similar fights over controversial abortion ads.
“Expression of this kind may lead to emotional responses from the various people who make use of public transit and other users of the road, creating a hostile and uncomfortable environment,” Court of the Queen's Bench Justice C.S. Anderson said in her ruling.
In examining whether the city should be forced to show the ad, Anderson said she had examined the CCBR's purpose and goals — and the effect the ad could have on women who have had abortions, as well as on children.
The CCBR's website, Anderson wrote, “contains commentary such as 'Now is the time to put an end to the slaughter. Now is the time to look evil in the face and say, enough.' These are strong statements that vilify women who have chosen, for their own reasons, to have an abortion; that are not merely informative and educational.”
The CCBR did not respond to a request for comment. But the group's lawyer, Carol Crosson, told the National Post that the group is considering an appeal.
“It’s an entire about-face from prior jurisprudence on protection for free speech,” Crosson said of the decision. “Protection for free speech has been very wide. So this is quite a departure from that firm protection.
“If your speech isn’t protected, mine isn’t protected either. The knife slices both ways.”
Grande Prairie city officials could not be reached for comment.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, told The Washington Post that the CCBR has tried to buy bus ads in several other Canadian cities and sued when the signs were denied.
“They're bringing these American-style tactics to Canada,” Arthur said. “I think Canadians have this stereotype of being polite. We don't like having this propaganda shoved down our throats.”
“They're very litigious,” she added of the CCBR. “They will turn around and sue anyone who doesn't go along with them.”
The Canadian judge found the ad is “likely to cause psychological harm” to women who've had an abortion or are considering an abortion.” The ad would make public transit hostile, which is antithetical to the city's goals.
But the group believes showing the images prevents people from turning a blind eye to the realities of abortion.
On its website, the CCBR says it “believes that imagery is a powerful tool” for its education efforts.
“We must use images of the atrocity of abortion to tear away the flimsy facade of 'choice' and reveal what is being chosen: the decapitation, dismemberment, and disembowelment of an innocent pre-born child.”