Source: Clayton DeMaine

As several Ontario municipalities try to ban pro-life activists from showing images of fetuses on public streets, Ontario pro-life groups are making a push for their Charter rights to be upheld.

The practical ways pro-life activists can fight back against legal limits some municipalities are placing on their activism were a main topic of discussion at an educational conference in Mississauga, Ont. on Saturday.

The City of London passed a bylaw in 2022 which banned the distribution of leaflets with fetal imagery to residents of the city. The city is currently trying to ban all fetal imagery from being displayed on the streets.

Many activists view their ability to share these images as crucial to the conversation surrounding abortion.

“We need to be able to defend our voice to stand up and defend the right to freedom of expression so that we can share the pro-life message,” Blaise Alleyne from the Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform, a national educational pro-life group, told True North.

Alleyne was one of the speakers at the conference. He discussed the barriers that the movement faces and how he thinks his fellow pro-life activists can “push back” both politically and legally. 

“We need to defend (freedom of expression) from government censorship, discrimination against pro-lifers and unfair treatment, and unfortunately, in some cases, from pro-choice, violence, people who take it into their own hands, literally, to try and stop us from speaking,” he said.

He said the nature of pro-life beliefs compels those who hold them to engage in conversations with people who don’t want to hear their message.

“In order to do the educational work, we’ve got to do the freedom of expression work so that we still have a voice,” Alleyne said. 

He said the movement faces many hurdles whether it’s from activists on the opposite side of the debate or from the government which could “discriminate against pro-lifers” by “censoring and suppressing the pro-life message.”

The municipalities of Hamilton, Toronto and the Region of Niagara have all passed or proposed motions banning the use of fetal images on signage and leaflets. 

St. Catherines. Ont. and several other municipalities have passed by-laws restricting the use of “graphic” images of fetuses on flyers. However, in February, one group challenged the by-law in St. Catherines at the Ontario Superior Court. The decision in that ongoing case could affect all the others.

“If people support freedom of expression. They should support it for everyone, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the pro-life movement on abortion,” Alleyne said. “In particular, this battle around fetal imagery is a battle around victim photography.”

Alleyne argued that the pro-life movement is not the only group to use victim photography in its mission to persuade citizens.

“Take the the war in Gaza, both the Israelis and the Palestinians use victim photography to plead their case to the public,” he said.

He pointed to historically successful movements that used victim photography, such as British abolitionists using visual evidence of slavery, the National Child Labor Committee taking photos of children working in factories, and the American Civil Rights Movement using photos of the victims of racism.

“We see photos of the victims being key to ending injustice and even if you disagree with a movement, it’s an important part of the conversation,” Alleyne said.

He said pro-lifers need to continue using the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to defend their ability to share their message and, from a pro-life perspective, save lives.

In a case involving a student who alleged she was discriminated against by student unions for her pro-life beliefs at what was then Ryerson University, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled that a pro-life stance “fits squarely within the ground of creed,” allowing it to be protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Alleyne also believes that pro-life groups need to continue to sue anyone who physically attacks them for their activism.

“We should be able to have civil disagreements in society without resorting to violence and to be able to see justice when someone assaults someone else because they disagree with the message,” he said. “We don’t always win but it’s a lot worse if we don’t stand up.”