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Public complaint leads to removal of anti-abortion ad from Guelph Transit buses

Three other advertisements by Guelph & Area Right to Life are still running on local buses
20200215 Guelph Wellington Right to Life KA
An anti-abortion ad by Guelph & Area Right to Life seen recently on a Guelph Transit bus. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday

A controversial anti-abortion advertisement that had been running on Guelph Transit buses has been removed by the City of Guelph after a complaint was made by a member of the public.

Lifelong Guelphite Fiona Douglas recalls seeing anti-abortion advertising by Guelph & Area Right to Life on Guelph Transit buses since she was a child. Now 27, Douglas has been campaigning for the past few years to have the advertisements removed from public property.

“I have seen these ads on buses since I was a little kid and it was very formative for me,” said Douglas. “I went to Catholic school, so that was the message I was getting at school as well. To see it on a bus would make me think that is the correct opinion because my city is telling me that and my school is telling me that.”

Reached by email on Tuesday, Hanna Caruso, program manager for Guelph & Area Right to Life, declined to comment for this story.

In 2017, Douglas began complaining to the City of Guelph about the advertisements, which she said could be triggering from someone who has had an abortion or is thinking about having one, as well as for people who believe in a woman’s right to choose.

An ad seen on a Guelph Transit bus last week showed a pregnant woman holding her stomach on one side and a woman in the same dress holding a baby on the other with the caption, ‘Human rights should not depend on where you are. Say no to abortion.’

“It’s triggering for me as someone who has never had an abortion. It upsets me that people are able to make other people question what is right for them and their health care through the lens of human rights,” said Douglas.

You only have to look to some states south of the border to see how abortion laws can be restricted, she said.

“It’s a very easy issue for politicians to create into a political issue when really it’s just an issue of health care. It’s just a medical procedure that is no different from any other in terms of what should be accessible,” said Douglas.

“To see some of those laws getting clawed back is disheartening because it’s clear that politicians in the U.S., who are mostly older men, are making these decisions for women and what they can do with their bodies and literally telling them what health care they can have and what they can’t,” she added.

Douglas said she believes strongly in freedom of speech and acknowledges Right to Life has every right to advertise, but doesn't want to see messages that are misleading or could be upsetting to some people.

“To me, it seems pretty cut and dry that they are not following the rules," she said.

When reaching out to the City of Guelph, Douglas was directed to instead make her complaints to Ad Standards council and its Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.

Tara Sprigg, general manager of Corporate Communications, said the city’s policy is based largely on the criteria for acceptance of advertisements from Ad Standards.

If an advertiser is compliant with the code, in most cases the ad will stay up.

“While the city doesn’t endorse any particular group, the rights of advertisers are protected and as such, unless it’s in direct contravention we are in a position whereby in many cases we have to accept it,” said Sprigg.

Currently, Guelph & Area Right to Life has three advertisements that run on the exterior of a total of 10 buses. There were four different ads, but Sprigg said one was removed in December because of a ruling by Ad Standards that said it was misleading.

The advertisement in question showed an image of a fetal ultrasound with the caption ‘Life should be the most fundamental human right. Say no to abortion.’

Douglas said she is the person who filed the complaint about the ad, arguing it is misleading because it conveyed the impression that a fetus is ‘human,’

In correspondence with Douglas that was shared with GuelphToday, Ad Standards said it received complaints from other individuals about the Right to Life ads in Guelph.

In its written decision, Ad Standards said the advertiser, Guelph & Area Right to Life, responded that the ad is an opinion piece and that the complaint is conflating the word ‘human’ for ‘person.’ Personhood is a legal concept, said Right to Life in the decision, while ‘human’ is a biological one.

The council looked to Criminal Code of Canada to assess the meaning of human, finding that a child becomes human according to the law only after live birth. As such, the advertisement in question was found to be misleading.

Ad Standards further said in its decision that the advertisement does not demean or disparage women who have had or are considering an abortion and the imagery in no way offended the standards of public decency.

Douglas said the decision to remove one of the four ads by Right to Life is encouraging and she hopes the city continues to participate in future decisions by the council.

Sprigg told GuelphToday the city receives a number of comments per year about the Right to Life advertisements, but that 2019 was a record year with 11 emails in opposition to them and six in favour.

“Historically we tend to see a spike in complaints in the fall — whether or not there’s a correlation to University of Guelph students returning to the city, I am not sure, but that’s a trend we have observed,” said Sprigg.

She said the city is increasingly being asked to by members of the public to not be exposed to advertising they deem to be inappropriate or offensive.

In the case of the ad in question, Sprigg said the city’s policy to follow the Ad Standards guideline worked.

“If (Ad Standards) rules that an ad is in contravention of its standards, when that is communicated to us that would likely result in us removing the ad from our property,” she said.

The advertisement in question was removed from the exterior of two Guelph Transit buses and was later replaced with other advertisements by Right to Life, said Sprigg.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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