A Dartmouth billboard reading ‘Canada has no abortion laws’ is turning heads and raising ire.
The sign on Windmill Road is rented on a four-week contract and paid for by We Need A Law—a religious advocacy group based in Vancouver and Ottawa.
Jennifer Taylor, a research lawyer with Stewart-McKelvey was “fired up and frustrated” when she saw the sign.
“It’s a common misconception about Canadian law that we don’t have law
protecting abortion rights,” she says.
“The billboard just fuels that misinformation.”
The billboard’s message arrives on the heels of a massive overhaul in this province’s handling of abortion. In September 2017, Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government removed the requirement for a doctor’s referral to obtain an abortion.
Today, women can call the Termination Pregnancy Unit directly to book an appointment. The abortion pill ‘mifegymiso
’ is also now available free at pharmacies.
This comes 30 years after access to abortion became a federally protected right. In its now-famous 1988 Morgentaler decision, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the abortion provision in the Criminal Code unconstitutional.
The ruling referred to section 7 of the Charter, which protects liberty and security of the person.
“As a result, government
can’t impose unreasonable barriers to abortion,” Taylor explains.
But this isn’t how the president of We Need A Law interprets the ruling.
“Since 1988 Canada has had no abortion law, neither a federal criminal law nor a provincial health regulation. You can find acknowledgement of this fact at abortionlaws.ca, our own website weneedalaw.ca” writes Mike Schouten in an email to The Coast.
Along with leading We Need A Law, Schouten also works with the Association for Reformed Political Action—a group that lobbies government on issues surrounding same-sex marriage, “pre-born human rights” and “multiculturalism.”
He doesn’t share lawyer Taylor’s view that the billboard spreads “misinformation.”
“It is a clear and accurate statement,” he says.
The billboard is leased out by Pattison Outdoor Advertising, a business whose Halifax chapter has received a number of complaints since the sign went up.
But the Toronto-based owner of Pattison, Randy Otto, says the billboard won’t come down unless his business is instructed to do so by the regulating body Advertising Standards Canada.
In fact, Otto is sending people with complaints directly to the group.
When nurse activist Martha Paynter wrote to Pattison to register her complaint about the billboard, she received an email response encouraging her to take it up with ASC.
“We most certainly do not need a law criminalizing abortion,” Paynter wrote, “Abortion is health care. We don’t criminalize knee replacements.”
Otto says his business complies with basic standards, including not posting any “advocacy advertising”—as We Need a Law is considered—that is “misleading.”.
But Otto adds, “I’m not an expert on Canadian abortion law.”
Taylor, for her part, says we could use more of those kinds of laws.
“[There are] layers of law. There is no one piece of federal legislation about abortion.
“In Nova Scotia, there is no one piece of provincial legislation about abortion,” she says. This is what leads to confusion amongst the public.
“We have the charter. The charter applies everywhere in Canada,” Taylor explains, “but we need to make this framework clearer so there’s a ready-made document.”
Taylor is working with LEAF, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, to develop such a document and outline the differences between access, province by province. It's something advocacy groups could use to distribute clear information.
“We also need lobbying of provincial governments to make clear what abortion access is in each province,” Taylor adds.
Requests for comment to ASC were not returned.
“If if they review it and find it’s a statement and it is not factual, then we’ll absolutely address it immediately,” says Otto. No word on how long that'll take, but if “multiple people complain multiple times” the matter will likely be resolved swiftly.
“They’ll move it to the top.”