Pro-life leaders are to step up their campaign for the reintroduction of a ban on abortion in Northern Ireland after advertising watchdogs cleared a billboard campaign following complaints.
It comes as the bishops of Northern Ireland branded the country’s new abortion law ‘unjust’, saying it should reflect the majority’s desire to protect the lives of the unborn. In a letter to MLAs at Stormont they called for a new debate on the regulations.
The posters – which carried the slogan ‘ABORTION KILLS BABIES: Repeal Section 9, Sign the petition SPUC.org.uk/repeal’ – were launched by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
They appeared across the country as the new regulations under Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act came into effect on 31st March.
However, an investigation was mounted by the Advertising Standards Authority after they received calls for the billboards to be banned.
Complainants challenged whether the use of the word ‘baby’ was misleading ‘as they understood that this was not a medically recognised term in this context’.
However, the ASA has ruled against taking any action and say the adverts comply with the Human Rights Act 1998 regulations which defend the right to freedom of expression.
Liam Gibson, SPUC’s Northern Ireland political officer, welcomed the decision, insisting that the posters were “in no way sensational”.
“Abortion is a black and white issue and the ads reflect that, by stating ‘Abortion kills babies’ in white letters on a black background,” he said.
“Of course, people who want to sanitise abortion pretend that a foetus isn’t a baby but it is an inescapable fact that every abortion kills a baby. The ASA could not contradict that or say the adverts were misleading.”
Mr Gibson emphasised that Northern Ireland’s new abortion law is the most extreme in all of Europe.
“That’s why it is important Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which allowed abortion, is repealed,” he said.
SPUC will now up its campaign and increase its advertising programme. “We intend to extend the initiative and continue to build support for the restoration of the right to life of all unborn children,” Mr Gibson said.
The ASA’s Complaints Executive, Tom Merryweather, said some of the complaints had come from women who had had abortions, and the ASA was asked whether the ad was likely to cause ‘widespread offence’.
One complainant objected that the ad could cause fear and distress in children, and therefore challenged whether the ad was suitable for an untargeted medium.
Mr Merryweather stated that, in the ASA’s assessment, the ad was produced as a response to Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and referred to a matter of controversial political and moral debate, which they considered would “provoke a strong response from those who saw the ad and that it would be likely to cause offence, especially to those who had direct experience of abortion”.
However, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code was drafted to reflect the requirements of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 which states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, subject to proportionate limitations.
The ASA Council considered that the ASA could not intervene to prohibit the ad without restricting the advertiser’s freedom of expression unjustifiably, and therefore concluded that it did not breach the Code.
“Claims in the ad were reflective of the subjective opinions of a campaigning group concerning abortion, and the term ‘baby’ reflected the advertiser’s own view.”
Picture: The SPUC billboard: Complaints centred on the use of the word ‘baby’, which some claimed would cause offence. (SPUC).