2 councillors want to stop the use of graphic imagery by anti-abortion groups

Two Toronto city councillors are putting forward a motion calling for a review of bylaws to see if anti-abortion groups can be prevented from using graphic imagery of aborted fetuses.

Councillors are asking city staff to reassess bylaws allowing protesters to use graphic imagery

Members of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform demonstrate against abortion on College Street last year. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC )

Jessica Anderson was walking home after a stroll with her two-year-old son when she ran into a shocking sight at Main Street and Danforth Avenue.

On all sides of the intersection were protesters with placards and signs depicting bloodied, dismembered fetuses.

"It was really upsetting," she said. "I didn't feel comfortable with my son seeing it."

Anderson said she immediately called her local city councillor, Janet Davis, who represents Ward 31, Beaches-East York.

Davis, along with Coun. Sarah Doucette, who represents Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park, has put forward a motion requesting that the General Manager and Transportation Services review current bylaws.

"We're asking our staff to look at what might be possible to prevent imposing on the public these unwanted, graphic and disturbing images," Davis said.

A similar request was filed last year in October for staff in Municipal Licensing and Standards, and Transportation Services to report to council in 2018 on options for dealing with the issue.

"That didn't happen," Davis said.

Doucette said she's been receiving calls for years about anti-abortion groups leaving fliers and pamphlets in mailboxes. She says she doesn't oppose the right of these groups to express their opinion, but she does say their imagery is far too disturbing.

'Freedom of expression is not for the popular opinion'

The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) is the Calgary-based organization behind the protests and flyers.

CCBR holds anti-abortion protests across the country, including in the GTA. Doucette says they've been seen outside schools, community centres, abortion clinics, beaches and busy intersections. 

And according to CCBR spokesperson Devorah Gilman, since beginning their organization in 2001, four million Canadians have seen the graphic images. 

"Freedom of expression is not for the popular opinion," Gilman said. "It's for the unpopular opinion."

Anne Su, an assistant professor of law at the University of Toronto, said technically Gilman is right, but only to a certain extent. 

'Free speech is not absolute,' U of T law professor says

"Under Canadian case law right now, one could argue that it's definitely covered by freedom of free speech laws," she said.

However, Su also said in the event CCBR takes the city to court for violating their freedom of speech, the city could also make a convincing case.

"But depending on where it's being shown—like outside a particular school as opposed to a hospital or an abortion clinic then the court might rule differently," she said.

"Obviously, free speech is not absolute [in Canada] and it can be limited in certain ways."