Rhetoric vs. Reality

Dawna Cornelissen

If there is one thing that pro-lifers are good at, it is creating posters intended to shock and blame. The most disturbing and extreme pro-life poster I have ever seen is, by far, the "Malachi" poster (circa 1993), which shows a blown up photograph of a supposedly aborted fetus. Lately, the pro-lifers have been less graphically disturbing but just as relentless, displaying phrases like "Abortion is Murder". Last weekend posters like these were on exhibit at a pro-life rally less than one mile from my school. Over 50 people came out to stand with National Life Chain Sunday, a project of a Christian pro-life ministry based 45 miles north of Sacramento, CA called Please Let Me Live. These "life chains" are held in numerous cities across the U.S. on the first Sunday of every October (for a list of cities that participated, click here).

If there is one thing that pro-lifers are good at, it is creating posters intended to shock and blame. The most disturbing and extreme pro-life poster I have ever seen is, by far, the "Malachi" poster (circa 1993), which shows a blown up photograph of a supposedly aborted fetus. Lately, the pro-lifers have been less graphically disturbing but just as relentless, displaying phrases like "Abortion is Murder". Last weekend posters like these were on exhibit at a pro-life rally less than one mile from my school. Over 50 people came out to stand with National Life Chain Sunday, a project of a Christian pro-life ministry based 45 miles north of Sacramento, CA called Please Let Me Live. These "life chains" are held in numerous cities across the U.S. on the first Sunday of every October (for a list of cities that participated, click here).

The event, which was advertised in the Community Calendar of the Dallas Morning News, was facilitated by the Immaculate Conception (how ironic) Catholic Church and lasted for about an hour underneath the hot Texas sun. I was unable to attend, but a group of about 15 counter protestors, made up of mostly students, were there to represent the pro-choice side. Even though the Life Chain manual encourages "Chainers" to accommodate counter protestors with kindness, the manual does advise them to refrain from conversation. But, according to a North Texas Daily article, there were instances of heated debate between some pedestrians and protesters. One of the things that upset the counter protestors the most was when a male protestor brought his daughter over and proceeded to tell her that they were evil and wanted to kill all children. Additionally, according to the counter protestors I spoke with, the pro-lifers engaged in scare tactics, including taking pictures of them and asking if they have had abortions themselves.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems contradictory to be teaching hate at a Christian event centered on prayer. But then again, pro-life rhetoric is steeped in contradiction. For example they are against abortion, but also against most of what can prevent unintended pregnancy (contraception, condoms, sex-ed, etc). They say that abortion hurts women, but so does taking away their right to choose when to have children. They pray to end abortion and claim that "God's salvation plan is the surest weapon against abortion" instead of acknowledging real ways to prevent unintended pregnancies. But in the middle of a protest, it is impossible to effectively argue with baseless, irrational rhetoric; the most outrageous will almost always gets the most attention.

Debates like these are both deafening and silencing, but there must be a place where the rhetoric disappears and all that is left is the reality of the situation. As you go to the polls next month, keep in mind the reality of anti-choice legislation. Take the time to find your candidates' positions and understand the real implications of voting them into office. Strip away the rhetoric and find the answers to the questions that are important to you. This mid-term election is crucial to securing a pro-choice U.S. Know that there is a reality behind the rhetoric and that reality is yours.

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Commentary Abortion

The Largely Forgotten History of Abortion Billboard Advertising—and What Pro-Choice Advocates Can Learn From It

Cynthia Greenlee

Ideological warfare about abortion via advertising has a long track record, though it’s a past largely forgotten in history’s fog and the present’s relentless attacks on abortion rights. Today’s reproductive rights and justice advocates can’t afford to forget that past.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Across the United States, billboards are visible evidence of the contentious abortion debate. Enlarged images of fetuses, cherubic babies, distressed women, and Bible verses tower over highways and byways like anti-abortion sentinels overseeing America’s culture wars.

Notice I didn’t mention images that show happy, pro-choice women, for it’s a lopsided roadside debate.

Rarely do we see billboards promoting abortion rights or the broader ideals of reproductive justice; there are few examples like New Voices Cleveland’s recent sponsorship of these billboards that affirmed, in the wake of the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in the city, that reproductive justice includes the right to parent and protect children. Abortion opponents have effectively cornered the market on this advertising medium and, to paraphrase a hackneyed phrase from “American Idol” judges, have made the billboard their own.

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But the good news: The billboard is just a tool (like video is a tool)—and tools can be harnessed for any movement. In fact, past abortion-rights advocates used billboards to good effect—even before Roe v. Wade. Ideological warfare about abortion via advertising has a long track record, though it’s a past largely forgotten in history’s fog and the present’s relentless attacks on abortion rights. Today’s reproductive rights and justice advocates can’t afford to forget that past. They may need to “go back to the future” to resurrect this tool in an era where women face increasing restrictions on abortion, and providers face proposed laws that would curtail their ability to offer reproductive health care to women most in need.

So what is it that advocates need to remember or learn? For starters, many early billboards functioned as straightforward advertising for abortion—even when it wasn’t widely legal. This roadside sign popped up in McGrann, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and pointed people to neighboring New York state, which had legalized abortion in 1970.

Abortion Billboard

Similar billboards featuring phone numbers began sprouting like giant flowers on the American landscape. As this picture demonstrates, referral services—some nonprofit and some that operated as for-profit entities—also took to streetsides before Roe to tell women that they could find health care in the form of abortion and sterilization.

Billboard on Abortion

Distributing information about abortion through billboards or other advertisements was not without risk; those who did so could face arrest. In 1972, Charlottesville, Virginia, newspaper editor Jeffrey Bigelow was charged with running advertisements for a New-York based abortion referral service and convicted under a state law banning any public promotion of abortion services. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but took a back seat to the bigger challenges to abortion bans: the cases that would become Roe and Georgia’s Doe v. BoltonBigelow v. Virginia was eventually decided in 1975; Bigelow’s conviction was overturned because there could be no limits on the advertising of a service that had become legal.

At the same time, the young anti-abortion movement was also rolling out its own billboards, said historian Jennifer Donnally, a Hollins University visiting professor who researches abortion politics and the new right. From the early days when anti-abortion advocates were organizing against state-level abortion law reform, they have made billboards a key part of their messaging.

“Anti-abortion billboards began to appear on highways in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington [state] prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as part of statewide campaigns against abortion repeal efforts,” Donnally told Rewire.

Many of those billboards were tied to specific ballot measures or potential law changes. In 1970, when Washington state planned a referendum where voters could decide to allow abortion in some circumstances, opponents (and their billboards) came out in full force. “Kill Referendum 20, not me,” implored a billboard picturing a fake fetus cradled in an adult hand. Accused of using tasteless scare tactics, Voice of the Unborn (the group behind the billboards) replied through a representative, reported the New York Times in October of that year: “They show an exact medical school replica of a 4-month-old baby. If the billboards seem to be shocking, perhaps it’s the idea of abortion that’s shocking.” (The referendum passed with 56 percent of the vote, and allowed women and girls to have abortions if they requested them, with the consent of their husbands or guardians, and if the procedure was performed by a licensed physician.)

Donnally noted that anti-abortion billboards have taken different forms and served many purposes over time. They moved from makeshift messages in cornfields to slick public-relations creations, and they mobilized supporters in different ways according to the movement’s age and successes.

“The publicity billboards educated the public and recruited potential activists. Behind the scenes, efforts to place billboards trained anti-abortion activists in fundraising and media relations while also [making] activists feel effective when the movement was in its early stages, following setbacks or celebrating victories. Sometimes, billboard campaigns were sophisticated. Other times, a farmer in a rural area who had a hard time connecting to anti-abortion chapters concentrated in cities and towns took action into his or her own hands,” added Donnally. “They made a plywood anti-abortion sign and posted it on their land next to a heavily traveled highway.”

After the Bigelow ruling, anti-abortion advertising gained steam in the mid-1970s. A February 1976 Village Voice article called John C. Willke, then a practicing obstetrician and a future president of the National Right to Life Committee, the “visual aids guru of the pro-life movement.” Willke’s first visual aids were often slideshows that Willke and his wife presented in talks to high schoolers.

But, according to the article, Willke’s “newest project [was] the creation of the three billboard posters. The least offensive reads ‘Abortion: A woman’s right to choose.’” “Choose” was crossed out and replaced with “kill.” A second billboard depicted tiny feet and this text: “This baby won’t keep his mother awake at night … at least not yet.” Willke planned to erect a fetus billboard atop a building across from a Minnesota hospital that provided abortions, the article added.

Willke’s focus on the fetus and abortion’s supposedly negative and life-changing effects on the woman—now cornerstones of anti-abortion rhetoric—was an experimental and emergent strategy then. Emphasizing abortion as an emotional harm and women as its simultaneous victims and perpetrators, right-to-life groups were often explicit when telling their members how to best deploy billboards. An undated newsletter from the Jackson, Mississippi-based Christian Action Group provided hand-drawn illustrations of possible billboards, one showing “baby’s first visit to the doctor,” a menacing-looking physician holding a black sack and a frazzled woman hovering in the background. Also included was a sample billboard that showed a hand wielding a scalpel, labeled “a pro-choice pacifier.”

Christian Action Group

 

"Pro-Choice Pacifier"

The illustrations came with this advice on using billboards to the best advantage: “One form of ‘advocacy advertising,’ such as political advertising, is to convince people of the justification of your point of view. Another is to make people ashamed to be with your [opponents]. These billboards are the latter.” Cultivating and multiplying shame was a tactic. As abortion opponents’ philosophy went, Americans—even the most well-intentioned or those ignorant of the “real” story about abortion—needed to be confronted visually with their silent complicity.

When Roe came under significant legal challenge in the 1980s, billboards became even more overtly political. In 1988, the year before the U.S. Supreme Court decision Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that allowed states to restrict abortion, a Planned Parenthood billboard showed six male (and mostly anti-abortion) Supreme Court justices holding their own sign saying “Freedom of Choice,” but with Chief Justice William Rehnquist slamming his gavel on the word “of” and Justices Harry Blackmun and Clarence Thomas holding a replacement sign with the word “from.” Also in 1988, anti-abortion activists experimented with a new form of advertising by placing anti-abortion placards in Atlanta taxis during the Democratic National Convention there.

A year later, in 1989, Prolife Across America was up and running. It works as an anti-abortion billboard mill, cranking out design after design (as well as radio spots and other advertising).

Therein lies the difference: Billboards have been institutionalized in anti-abortion media strategy and organizations, but they seemed to fade from the strategic agendas of reproductive rights organizations. In 2014, the Prolife Across America/Prolife Minnesota tax return reported that its designs were emblazoned on more than 6,000 billboards, reaching Americans stuck in traffic or driving to work every day with its larger-than-life messages. The group often says those messages are hotlines for pregnant women, educational, and roadside ministry all wrapped into one. Other organizations provide templates or the actual printed vinyl panels that bear the messages and drape over the standard billboard frames for prices as cheap as $200 (not including the cost of billboard rental, which varies widely according to geography, company, and the estimated number of motorists and views at given locations).

As the billboard has become a consistent anti-abortion platform, the messages billboards have carried read like a conversation between abortion opponents and other social movements. Billboard makers have blatantly adapted the slogans of feminism and civil rights and even the images of Black political leaders such as Frederick Douglass or Barack Obama—and with varying degrees of deftness or tone-deafness.

By the 1990s, billboards in the Midwest had reworked a common feminist bumper sticker to read “Pro-life: The radical idea that fetuses are people.” Later, billboards took an explicitly racial turn. In 2011, billboards proclaiming “Black & Beautiful” alongside pictures of Black infants appeared in Oakland, California. Sponsored by the anti-abortion group Issues4Life, the billboards appropriated the language of the Black Panther movement, which had its most well-known and vocal chapter in the Bay Area city.

Images and messages on billboards that explicitly targeted Black communities—and paved the way for others aimed at Latinos and Asians—were not entirely new. As scholar Gillian Frank has pointed out, a 1972 Michigan referendum about changing that state’s abortion law pushed anti-abortion groups to begin developing brochures that pictured Black babies and compared abortion to slavery, now old-hat anti-abortion fare.

More than 20 years later, diverse groups protested the encroachment of racist billboards in their home communities. In Oakland in 2011, Strong Families and a coalition of multiracial groups joined forces to persuade CBS Outdoor to take down controversial signage—a campaign similar to one used a year before by the Atlanta-based SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective when billboards also owned by CBS and claiming that “black children are an endangered species” appeared in the Georgia capital. Earlier this year, the reproductive justice group SisterReach successfully pushed for the removal of anti-abortion billboards in Tennessee.

Yet the hand that giveth does taketh away. Contemporary groups fighting for abortion access find that many billboard and other advertising companies reserve the right to deny or take down controversial content. And those contractual stipulations mean that some companies will reject outright advertising that specifically references abortion or simply points women to services—for fear that the other side will cause a ruckus and demand its removal. Fears of the “A-word” have made it into the online world, with Google determining that abortion ads were “non-family-safe” content and categorizing them with adult advertising and entertainment.

Whatever the advertising format, it’s clear that this type of commercial and political speech isn’t going away. And few people know that better than Jasmine Burnett, New Voices Cleveland’s field organizer in the Midwest. In 2010, she led the campaign to take down a SoHo, New York, billboard that proclaimed the most dangerous place for a Black person was the womb, and this year, Burnett was a driving force behind the Cleveland billboard.

Cleveland Billboard

Burnett said that it’s not enough to mount defensive campaigns that respond to the propagandistic billboards that increasingly dot urban and mostly Black neighborhoods. What’s necessary is billboard activism that moves beyond reproductive rights’ preoccupation with abortion and, in keeping with a reproductive justice lens, addresses the racism that’s an American bedrock.

“Anti-abortion billboards are an affront and an attack. [In doing the billboards, New Voices Cleveland] wanted to provide other spaces for creative thought, affirmation, and liberation,” said Burnett. “We work for the full health and well-being of Black women and people. For us, full health means having a different image of ourselves, being able to control and discuss our reproduction, and thinking about how we navigate self-determination in the midst of white supremacy.

“There are not many [billboards or other advertising] that talk about Black people’s lives,” Burnett added. “And we wanted our billboards to say, ‘We support your decision and right to parent or not parent. And we care about your life.’”

Commentary Media

Beyond the Coat Hanger: What’s Next for Abortion Rights Iconography?

Cynthia Greenlee

For me, and many others born after Roe v. Wade, the fixation on coat hangers as the prevailing imagery of the reproductive rights movement excludes the possibility of alternatives that are more relevant to current struggles.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

For many in the reproductive rights movement, the coat hanger is more than a commonplace closet item. Activists use it to memorialize those girls and women who turned to unsafe abortions out of desperation when abortion was illegal. It transforms into shorthand for “Never again.”

Although the symbol resurfaces throughout the year, it becomes a frequent sight around the January anniversary of Roe v. Wade. As I saw coat hanger references earlier this year, I felt an odd dissonance. I knew what I was supposed to feel: outrage, sadness, and a renewed commitment to reproductive justice. Instead, though, I only felt unmoved and then unnerved. For me, and many others born after Roe, the fixation on coat hangers as the prevailing iconography of the reproductive rights movement excludes the possibility of alternatives that are more relevant to current struggles.

Part of my discomfort was rooted in historical quibbles; while the coat hanger is the enduring symbol of women’s determination and desperation to end pregnancies during the era of illegal abortion, the implements of pregnancy termination also included catheters, toothpicks, unnaturally long fingernails, and drugs—even well before medication abortion was an accepted practice. And as durable as the images of the coat hanger or dangerous back-alley procedure may be, not all illegal abortions were unsafe; many were performed by trained clinicians working outside the law. In addition, as part of the first post-Roe generation, I didn’t live through a time when many hospitals had so-called “dirty” wards, where they treated women suffering from botched abortions. As much I hate to admit it, the coat hanger doesn’t resonate with me or many other people my age or younger.

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Given these realities, combined with the abortion storytelling trend—through which women publicly share their experiences with reproductive care—it is surprising that more advocates in the mainstream movement have not honed in on visual storytelling’s potential to change the way the general public perceives our issues. Considering, for example, the remarkable artistic flowering and public visual commemorations (such as “hands up” pictures) that are part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s time for the reproductive rights movement to get on board too.

Because images matter. Even if we stop short of agreeing with the old adage that “seeing is believing,” they can still influence, inflame, and reinforce beliefs—and we should be taking advantage of that.

Some activists have begun to pinpoint the problems with the movement’s existing iconography and to propose and create alternatives. Boston-based artist Megan Smith, who created the Repeal Hyde Art Project to increase dialogue about the federal policy that restricts Medicaid funds from being used to support abortion care except in case of rape or incest, points out that the coat hanger, on its own, reduces the struggle for reproductive health-care access to a single act of danger.

“Perhaps the coat hanger does what it’s intended to do. It makes me uncomfortable and makes me think about the violence [inherent in restricting women’s rights],” Smith told Rewire. Through art, she said, “I want to find a way to honor that history, what illegal abortion meant, and be respectful of what that means for people who have that real connection to that history. But I don’t know if that’s the message to put out there and for people to share. Women are resilient. Where are the images of resilience? Where are the images of faith? Where are the images of optimism?”

This narrow scope, she noted, reflects activists’ frequent embrace of narratives of suffering when garnering support for reproductive rights. “When talking about abortion access, we tend to victimize women who can’t afford their abortions or don’t get them. We are not opening the narrative to talk about women who have overcome that,” she said.

Still, it is challenging to convey the wide range of reproductive health experiences in a lasting, recognizable way. When Smith first began thinking about reproductive rights and visual media, she observed the limited repertoire already in use: the astrological female symbol, a silhouette of the uterus (not exactly familiar without a more-than-basic knowledge of anatomy), or the raised fist popularized by Black nationalists. She wanted to use art to give people an entry point to talk about abortion and reproductive rights without either contributing to the existing echo chamber or veering automatically to the polemical. To that end, her installations feature paper birds—whose flight, she says, can symbolize transcending the abortion debate. She invites spectators to add their own winged creation; often, passersby become participants just because they are drawn to the flock of simple, origami-like creatures.

Megan Smith's "Repeal Hyde" installations symbolize the act of transcending the abortion debate.

The birds used in Megan Smith’s “Repeal Hyde” installations symbolize the act of transcending the abortion debate. (Image courtesy Megan Smith)

Graphic designer Andrea Goetschius, also of Massachusetts, has had similar struggles in her work with international women’s health organizations. Too often in mainstream symbolism, she tells Rewire, pregnant women are reduced to nothing but body parts. This issue, she says, extends to general messaging about reproductive health.

“This isn’t just a problem about abortion; it’s a problem in terms of [illustrating] the spectrum of reproduction. If you try to find any image of pregnancy, you get ultrasounds, and you get bellies without heads. And these are white bellies. I refuse to use disembodied women,” she said. Instead, she frequently works creatively with fonts or typography rather than use pictures: “I’ve often chosen to strip the images … because it’s worse to perpetuate the de-centering of the woman.”

Maggie MacDonald, a visual anthropologist at York University in Toronto, has a slightly different take. She agrees that depictions of women are now largely absent from global reproductive health groups, especially those aiming to reduce pregnancy-related deaths worldwide. However, she notes, those campaigns have instead adopted pre-adolescent girls as their poster children, often pictured in school clothes or skipping in the sunlight.

This hypothetical young girl, MacDonald said, allows global information consumers to experience a “shared sense of humanity, through hope and aspiration. We want her to delay marriage, stay in school, use contraceptives, space her children.” But depicting schoolgirls as the ultimate target of reproductive health services strikes MacDonald as irresponsible, in that it ignores adult women’s needs and wants.

However, focusing on adult women should not mean the exclusion of offspring altogether; in an effort to center women, other reproductive health organizations that specifically work on abortion hesitate to use pictures of children in their publications. That is also short-sighted, says Madison, Wisconsin-based graphic designer Heather Ault.

“I think that’s the wrong approach,” she told Rewire. “Abortion is ultimately about motherhood, and women who are mothers are the majority of those who are having abortions. I think that by ignoring that fact, we’re missing out on an opportunity to tell the story of motherhood. The idea that abortion is about motherhood—abortion providers talk about abortion that way, but our mainstream movement does not.”

Ault is well known for her “4000 Years for Choice” exhibits, which tell the stories of abortion activism, contraceptive methods, and abortion procedures over time; she’s also produced some of the mostly widely circulated memes about reproductive health.

Heather Ault's “4000 Years for Choice” exhibits tell the stories of abortion activism, contraceptive methods, and abortion procedures over time.

Heather Ault’s “4000 Years for Choice” pieces tell the stories of abortion activism, contraceptive methods, and abortion procedures over time. (Image courtesy Heather Ault)

When preparing for “4000 Years for Choice,” Ault noticed that one political group in particular has consistently cogent messaging about reproductive issues: the anti-choice movement.

“In 2008, I went to the pro-life march in Washington, D.C. I marched with them, went to workshops. I felt like their signs were good. Their t-shirts were really good; there were so many different pro-life t-shirts you could buy. Almost any design, any personality. I was really impressed. I don’t agree with them, but they knew what they were doing. It was really inspiring from a design side,” she said.

In her view, abortion opponents were and are ahead of the game, designing apparel and billboards that put their messages on American streets.

Granted, it may be that the other side has an inherently simpler message. As Smith pointed out, “It’s not exactly nuanced: Abortion kills. That’s it.”

While that overarching message may be a great anti-abortion unifier, though, abortion opponents aren’t afraid to go for the gusto, trotting out images that may mobilize or even risk offending potential allies: notably, the bloody fetus. Since the invention and consumerization of the ultrasound, the fetus has taken center stage. It seems to float in “space,” independent of the person to whom it’s literally tied. She disappears or is only acknowledged as the fetus’ adversary—reinforcing her sublimation to the fetus in anti-choicers’ rhetoric and legislation.

Abortion rights activists may have a harder job in creating a symbolic language. How do you convey the state of abortion access—legal but increasingly restricted—visually? No single symbol can carry the weight of the many messages that emanate from these movements: obstacles, lack of access to contraceptives, women’s empowerment, abortion as a moral choice, and so on.

Goetschius says that reinventing a compelling visual language may force the reproductive rights movement to focus on targeting their audiences’ sympathetic as well as logical sides.

“Do we fall into the trap of trying to intellectualize this and not going for the emotional appeal? If we’re going for the equivalent of the cute baby”—the anti-abortion mascot—”why don’t we show happy and fulfilled women and men?” she asked.

But she does think that research can help determine new frontiers in the iconography of abortion rights; she hopes to one day run focus groups that ask women who have given birth or had abortions to draw their experiences, and to use their responses to generate new images. Similarly, she supports the idea of campaigns to submit and upload better images—say, those that show whole women and not merely their pregnant abdomens—to stock photography sites, frequently used by media outlets and ad companies.

For her part, Ault is waiting for the reproductive rights movement to invest money and time in finding new symbols. That may take a while because, as scholar Rosalind Petchesky wrote in a seminal 1987 article about the fetal image and visual culture, even feminists and pro-choice advocates find it hard to imagine positive images of abortion; we, she argued, “have all too readily ceded the visual terrain.”

To this end, the reproductive rights movement can take a page from the corporate and design worlds. Any new consumer product comes with a branding package that’s not just about the text. It’s also about the look: how evocative it is and how it aligns with the message.

When Ault started the “4000 Years” exhibit, she was surprised that something like it “hadn’t been done before—despite the fact that the feminist movement had been in full swing for decades. We’re an image culture, but our movement has been focused on state and national politics.” That focus, she says, means there are few artists like the Bay Area’s Favianna Rodriguez, who can build artistic reputations and movements at the same time.

“What would have happened if more than 40 years ago, our movement started funding ten different artists a year to do work about reproductive justice and funded spaces to show it?” she wondered. “If that had been a priority, we would have so many images we wouldn’t know what to do with them.”