Toronto councillor to introduce motion aimed at curbing anti-abortion group's graphic door-to-door tactics

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A private members bill that would have outlawed door-to-door distribution of images of dead fetuses — unless they're enclosed in an envelope — died after its first reading at Queen's Park last year. (Eva Salinas/CBC - image credit)
A private members bill that would have outlawed door-to-door distribution of images of dead fetuses — unless they're enclosed in an envelope — died after its first reading at Queen's Park last year. (Eva Salinas/CBC - image credit)

Toronto city council will hear a call this week for limits on the graphic imagery being distributed door to door by an anti-abortion group.

The motion by Coun. Mike Layton (University-Rosedale) calls on staff to look into the feasibility of banning pictures of aborted fetuses that an anti-abortion group called the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR) distributes to people's homes, and displays on signs during public demonstrations.

"Those are images that can come back to haunt children," Layton said.

"I've got two small girls, six and four, and I don't want them seeing that imagery before we walk them home to go to bed.

"I don't want them going to going to high school and having that kind of fear mongering happening outside of their high school, which could deter them from getting medical treatment if they were in a position that they would be seeking an abortion," he added.

Layton's motion is fashioned after a regulation approved last month by the London, Ont., city council, which now forces organizations that distribute graphic abortion imagery to enclose their leaflets in an envelope bearing a warning.

Mike Smee/CBC
Mike Smee/CBC

Efforts by Toronto councillors in 2017 and 2018 have not yet resulted in municipal limits on the practice here. City staff say they're still studying the issue.

Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Halifax have anti-flyer bylaws as well, although only Calgary's was developed in specific response to anti-abortion materials.

At Queen's Park, a private member's bill that would have outlawed door-to-door distribution of images of dead fetuses — unless they're enclosed in an envelope — failed to move forward after its first reading last year.

Blaise Alleyne, eastern outreach director for the CCBR, said London's new bylaw may be the subject of a legal challenge — as could any similar effort by the Toronto city council.

Pelin Sidki/CBC
Pelin Sidki/CBC

He maintains that Toronto's past efforts to stop his group from displaying the graphic images have been stymied when the city's legal and licensing staff told councillors the rules would be a violation of the group's right to free expression.

City staff told CBC Toronto they are still studying the issue.

"I think the City of London hasn't learned its lesson yet, that the Charter obligates it to protect the right to freedom of expression," Alleyne said.

"If  [Toronto councillors] go ahead with this, we'll explore all of our legal options to defend our Charter right to freedom of expression so that we can be a voice for voiceless, pre-born children and for people who've experienced the trauma of abortion."

Volunteers drop thousands of leaflets

His group's website says its fundamental tactic is to expose people to pictures of dead fetuses.

"There are two essential pieces to the End the Killing plan: we must reach all mature Canadians with (1) abortion victim photography (AVP), and (2) human rights apologetics," the site states. "We need to bring compelling evidence and clear reasons to change hearts and minds on abortion."

Alleyne said his group's volunteers drop leaflets at "tens of thousands" of GTA households every year and hold between two and six public demonstrations a week.

"When people show photos of of Ukrainian refugees being gunned down, it's not fear mongering. It's showing photo evidence of what was done. And that's what we're doing on the abortion issue," Alleyne said.

"We're trying to bring the photo evidence that an innocent human being is being killed into the discussion in Canada."

Could survive legal challenge

Layton said he believes the "slate of tools" he's hoping staff come back to council with will transcend a legal challenge.

"I'm not a lawyer but when you are using graphic imagery, particularly targeting young people around schools, around abortion clinics, where people are there seeking help — I don't think that's right," he said.

"I think that there's a fundamental problem with that and in particular with the tactics that they're using. And that's why I brought the motion forward."

Layton said he's not concerned that new graphic imagery rules could be used to help stifle other demonstrations, like those against the war in Ukraine.

"I think it's one thing when you're expressing your opinion; I think it's entirely another one when you're trying to intimidate, or to to block someone from seeking medical attention that they may need, that in some cases could be lifesaving."

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