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Ad Standards Canada Censors Pro-Life Billboards in Contradictory Ruling

The contradictory nature of the rulings shows that it is not about the accuracy of the message, but about who is saying it.

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Anna Nienhuis Ottawa ON
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Most major ad companies in Canada voluntarily submit to something called Advertising Standards Canada (ASC). While they have no legal authority, ASC was established to ensure a certain standard in advertising. To save advertising companies the headache, they were established to process any complaints of inaccuracy or offensive content. Most advertisers will take down content on their request. We became acquainted with the ins and outs of Ad Standards this past summer when we entered into a contract with Pattison Outdoor to install over thirty billboards across Canada. Inspired by the fact that up to 77% of Canadians are unaware that Canada has no abortion laws, our billboard addressed this with the simple statement “Canada has no abortion laws.”

A neutral phrase

“Canada has no abortion laws” is a statement widely used by abortion activists with pride, and widely referenced by pro-life organizations as something to lament and change. Both sides have been saying this for years. Since 1988, Canada has had no Criminal Code restrictions on abortion, and there are also no provincial laws or college regulations governing abortion. The week the billboards went up, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada took to social media encouraging their supporters to complain that the ad was inaccurate, stigmatizing, and demeaning to women, among other things. All this in response to a statement used regularly by their own executive director, and easily found on their own website! If we were surprised to see complaints from an organization that proudly makes the same statement we chose for our billboard, we were flabbergasted to learn that ASC upheld their complaints. In both the initial ruling and the final response to our appeal, ASC offered no reasons as to why the pro-life advertisement contravened the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, no reference to specific complaints that swayed their decision, and no response to our inquiry as to what wording would be considered acceptable regarding the state of abortion law (or lack thereof) in Canada.

ASC has removed pro-life ads before

This is not the first time a pro-life ad has been taken down due to an ASC ruling. There are many such cases, but one in particular is worth noting here. In 2008, a decision was made against a pro-life billboard that implied that abortion was legally permitted in Canada throughout all stages of pregnancy. 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 blatantly contradict this, saying: “binding Canadian law that permits abortion in Canada does, in fact, currently exist.” The contradictory nature of the rulings shows that it is not about the accuracy of the message, but about who is saying it. At no point in the entire process have they been able to (or even tried to) show how the billboard violates the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.The council said the billboard message is inaccurate but has failed to point to a single law. As part of this effort to silence a particular set of Canadians, the ASC decision went further than dealing with the case in question. The ruling also included reference to bus ads in London, Ontario that were taken out by a different group, with a different advertising company, against which a local pro-abortion group also organized complaints.

Going beyond their mandate

As a self-regulatory body, Ad Standards has no authority to direct this, and this goes well beyond the scope of the initial complaints that were supposed to be the only focus of the decision. The fact that ASC has been inconsistent and overreaching in their rulings shows an organization heavily influenced by activist pressure rather than the neutral self-regulatory body they purport to be. Nothing has changed in the legal system regarding abortion in the last 10 years. Canada still has no abortion law. This decision against a simple, non-graphic billboard sharing that message is a sad reflection on the integrity of an organization relied on to ensure fair and accurate advertising in Canada, and should call into question not only their effectiveness, but even their existence.

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