Analysis Race

The Radiance Foundation: Radiating Hype and Lies

Pamela Merritt

The same web site that claims reproductive health care providers lie to and manipulate women sends them to crisis pregnancy centers that provide inaccurate medical information.

Since billboards went up in Georgia some months ago claiming that black children are an endangered species because of abortion, reproductive justice advocates have spent time and resources addressing the black genocide conspiracy theory and setting the record straight.  That makes sense – a false accusation left unaddressed can too easily be seen as the truth.  So, it comes as no surprise that advocates have focused on refuting false allegations and explaining the truth behind the numbers game proponents of the black genocide myth play.  I, however, have also been wondering who is behind this revival of the black genocide myth.  It seems to me that organizations claiming to expose “the truth” that then proceed to manipulate data and lie about the mission of reproductive health care providers, have earned a review themselves.

In Georgia, two groups joined forces to purchase billboards claiming that black children are an endangered species – Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) and The Radiance Foundation.  I was already familiar with GRTL, but The Radiance Foundation was new to me.  A quick Google search took me to The Radiance Foundation website.  The mission of The Radiance Foundation, founded by Bethany and Ryan Bomberger, is:

Through various forms of media, speaking engagements, multi-media presentations and community outreach efforts, we illuminate the intrinsic value each person possesses.  We educate audiences about societal issues and how they impact the understanding of God-given purpose.  We motivate people to positively affect the world around them.  Our content is professionally designed and connects with people cross culturally and gross generationally.

Isn’t it amazing how so many words can say so little?

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I decided to dig deeper.  Google searches of Ryan and Bethany Bomberger turned up a lot of websites created by Ryan Bomberger and some articles covering the endangered species campaign in Georgia.  The Radiance Foundation website hosts biographies for both Ryan and Bethany Bomberger and both appear to be anti-choice adoption advocates who also support the black genocide conspiracy theory.  The Bombergers are not new to the media spotlight, having appeared on Showtime at the Apollo, Good Morning America, ABC Family’s My Life is a Sitcom, and Oprah.

While The Radiance Foundation website appears to market the Bombergers themselves, one of their other websites – TooManyAborted.com – is all about marketing the black genocide conspiracy theory.  TooManyAborted.com boasts the tag line “no hype. just truth” and offers several videos perpetuating the black genocide conspiracy theory while also making allegations that reproductive health care providers are dishonest and use deceptive tactics to manipulate women of color into seeking abortions in order to continue a genocide of black people.  As I moved through the website, I clicked on the site’s YouTube button and viewed a video titled “Lies: Part 1” by The Radiance Foundation.  The video features cleverly edited clips of reproductive health care advocates with the word “lies” repeatedly flashing across the screen. 

I tried to imagine that I was the target of this marketing campaign and began looking for information about reproductive health care services.  If the site’s creators are making the case that reproductive health care providers are engaged in a conspiracy of deception to perpetuate a genocide of black people then I wanted to see what they considered “no hype” and “just truth.”\.

I clicked on the Get Help option under the Contact Us tab on the TooManyAborted.com homepage and then clicked on the tab titled Get Help Today.  I was taken to a different website, Optionline.org, for an organization called Option Line.  On their About Us page, Option Line says the following – “Option Line consultants refer each caller to a pregnancy resource center in her area for answers to questions about abortion, pregnancy tests, STDs, adoption, parenting, medical referrals, housing, and many other issues. The toll-free number is available to callers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Callers from across the country can reach a trained, caring person and then be connected to a pregnancy resource center near them for one-on-one help.  Option Line is a call center located in Columbus, Ohio, formed as a joint venture between Care Net and Heartbeat International.”

The same web site that claims reproductive health care providers lie to and manipulate women is sending women who seek information and advice about their options to a referral service for crisis pregnancy centers which have been proven to provide inaccurate medical information about abortion and use shame and scare tactics when counseling women.

What happened to “just truth” – did it get lost somewhere between the web page full of inaccurate information about abortion services and the page alleging the danger of Post-Abortion Stress that provides a link to an online Abortion Recovery survey that starts off with “Any of these circumstances might lead you to regret an abortion later. How many of these apply to you?”

I must confess that, after this exercise, I better understand the seductive appeal of conspiracy theories.  It would be easy to build a conspiracy theory that alleges that TooManyAborted.com is a hype-laden truth deficient referral site for crisis pregnancy centers.  But conspiracy theories, regardless of how cleverly they are presented, do nothing to empower women of color.  We deserve better – medically accurate information, access to the full range of reproductive health care services and respect for our ability to make medical decisions about of reproductive health.  We deserve choice – we’ve had enough hype to last us a lifetime.

Commentary Abortion

Looking at the Racial Disparity in Abortion Rates Completely Misses the Point

Kate Castle

A recent Wall Street Journal article accuses the American left of being hypocritical by advocating for Black Lives Matter while failing to address racial inequities in U.S. abortion rates. This claim is a deliberate attempt to justify the deterioration of reproductive rights for women in the United States under the guise of racial justice.

In his Wall Street Journal article titled “Let’s Talk About the Racial Disparity in Abortions,” Jason Riley, a conservative Black journalist, accuses the left of being hypocritical by advocating for Black Lives Matter while failing to address racial inequities in U.S. abortion rates. He calls on the left to develop a critique of racial disparity in abortion rates:

A popular explanation for the racial divide is that abortion rates are a function of poverty. Low-income women are more likely to terminate a pregnancy, and black women are more likely to be low-income. Yet there are limits to this argument. Hispanic households are comparable to black ones in finances, sexual activity and use of birth control. Yet Hispanic women choose to abort at a rate much closer to that of white women than black women. Even when controlling for income, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, black women still have significantly higher rates of abortion.

The sad truth is that many black women are not acting irrationally when they decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They are playing the odds. Out-of-wedlock Hispanic birthrates are above average, but Hispanic marriage rates are comparable to those of whites, which is not the case among blacks. Most Hispanic children are raised by two parents, while most black children are not. Many black women may be choosing to abort because they don’t believe the father will stick around to help raise the child. 

The left plays down the discomfiting incentives and unintended consequence that have resulted from Roe v. Wade. But if liberal activist and their media allies are going to lecture America about the value of black lives, the staggering disparity in abortion rates ought to be part of the discussion. [Emphasis added.]

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Riley’s argument is narrow-minded at best and extremely dangerous to the reproductive rights movement at worst.

I would like to address a few points of his piece here and argue that his focus on racial disparities in abortion rates is a deliberate attempt to justify the deterioration of reproductive rights for women in the United States under the guise of racial justice.

Riley’s argument is nothing novel. It echoes sentiments of the Black genocide campaigns. We’ve all seen the billboards that shame Black women with headlines like “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” What stands out about Riley’s argument is the way he frames his “concern.” Instead of accusing Black women of committing murder, Riley blames their partners. He says, “Many black women may be choosing to abort because they don’t believe the father will stick around to help raise the child.”

His claim about the root cause of why Black women have higher rates of abortion is both racist and sexist. By shifting the focus from systematic factors to Black women’s partners, presumably Black men, and an “unconventional” family structure among Black people (lower marriage rates and cohabitation), Riley is downplaying the importance of structural racism and blaming individuals for being “irresponsible.” He is attempting to depoliticize poverty by focusing on a very narrow and conservative view of morality.

Further, by inserting “the father” into the conversation, Riley is stripping Black women of their agency. In Riley’s world, Black women are merely subjects reacting to conditions they have no control over. This depiction of Black women as puppets disregards the complexities they grapple with and the strength they embody when making decisions about their reproduction and their lives. Black women, according to Riley, are not actors in their own lives.

However, as Monica Simpson of SisterSong explains in an article at Rewire, Black women “are making decisions every day to plan and care for ourselves and for our children.” Simpson adds:

We deal with attacks on our ability to access reproductive health care and obstacles to raising our children—the need for better education, difficulty affording child care, a broken criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration and police violence, continued health disparities, and a lack of access to high quality health services. We are struggling, but we are also striving to get by in a world that far too often wants to push us down.

….

There is a real health crisis for Black women in this country that is only exacerbated by an organized attempt to strip us of our rights and our bodily autonomy. People should not be forced to be pregnant when they are not ready, and we will not be told that we cannot be parents or that we should have to endure having our children grow up in a climate of fear or without a safe and healthy place to call home.

Riley’s logic—that higher rates of abortion among Black women are linked to lower marriage rates among Black couples—can be traced back to the theory of social disorganization. Sociologists at the University of Chicago described social disorganization theory as an explanation for why individuals undergoing major social changes (such as migration) were unable to conform to certain social “norms” such as a nuclear family unit. High crime rates, sexually promiscuous behavior, desertion, and delinquency were considered by the theorists as attributes of social disorganization.

During and after World War II there was an influx of Black Americans into northern industrial cities from the South. Many cities did not have the infrastructure to accommodate the rapidly growing population. This, in turn, led to overcrowding and housing deterioration in Black neighborhoods. Black housing reformers, in search of an explanation for the housing crisis in Chicago, adopted the social disorganization theory.

In Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Post-War Chicago, political scientist Preston H. Smith II explains:

The idea of social disorganization appealed to black civic leaders for a number of reasons. Since all African Americans were subject to racial segregation, for these black elites, social disorganization helped to explain why some succeeded in escaping poverty while others failed. Not only was it a convenient concept to explain class differences in the black community but it also paid racial democratic dividends. Black policy elites could single out low-income blacks as the bearers of personal and family disorganization, and thus contest whites who generalized pathology to blacks of all economic strata. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, Black elites were able to draw a class distinction in order to separate themselves from low-income Black individuals. They did so by embracing white middle-class values and using “self-help” rhetoric (preaching these values to working-class Blacks). The fact that Chicago school theorists depicted social disorganization as a process allowed for an understanding that it could be disrupted. Smith goes on:

Black civic leaders could attack social disorganization in two ways: by confronting racial segregation that produced slum conditions, and/or by correcting the values and behavior of working-class blacks in the segregated institutions that they managed. Black elites became invested in inculcating middle-class values into their poorer brethren.

This is a historical account of how Black elites took on a managerial role toward low-income Black individuals in the post-war era. “Self-help” rhetoric became popularized with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. As Preston H. Smith explains in “Self-Help,” Black Conservatives, and the Reemergence of Black Privatism:

The term “self-help” was used by political commentators, politicians, and ministers during the Reagan-Bush era to indicate a shift in black politics. Often invoked, self-help was associated with phrases such as “self-reliance” and “individual responsibility” to indicate that the source of black social problems came, and certainly alleviation should come, from within the black community.

Once understood to be a product of structural forces, with the help of self-help rhetoric, poverty is reduced to a character flaw. This focus on the individual depoliticizes poverty and perpetuates the idea that there is a Black underclass that needs to be “managed.” Riley’s use of self-help rhetoric to inflict shame on Black men, accusing them of being irresponsible, is a perfect example of how this logic is very much prevalent in Black politics today. Riley’s claim that Black men are not around to help raise their children reinforces this idea that poverty is a function of values and character. As a Black professional, he is attempting to take on the role of racial manager to tell low-income Black men how to be “responsible fathers.”

Riley’s accusation that Black men are not there to help Black women raise their children not only ignores structural factors that reproduce racial and economic inequality, such as mass incarceration and the lack of access to adequate health care and education, but it is also simply not true. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that Black dads are just as involved with their children as white and Latino dads in similar living situations. While Black dads are less likely to live with their children, they are more likely to see them at least once a month compared to their white and Latino counterparts.

While I would like to go more in depth into how neoliberal self-help rhetoric functions to depoliticize poverty, I want to get back to Riley’s central claim. Riley would like his readers to understand higher rates of abortion among Black women as a moral atrocity. He uses language like “babies” in the place of fetus intentionally to distract from the real issue at hand: controlling Black women’s reproduction and lives.

Reasons U.S. Women have Abortions, a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, found that 73 percent of women cited not being able to afford a baby right now as a reason for having an abortion. Over 60 percent of women having abortions already had children and 48 percent of women cited they were having relationship problems or did not want to be a single parent.

Of all the reasons women give for having abortions, not being able to afford to have another child is one of the most common. So yes, Mr. Riley, this is about economics.

Riley is correct that relationships play a role in women’s reproductive decisions. It is true that 48 percent of women cited relationship problems or avoiding single motherhood as a reason for having an abortion. But this doesn’t mean what Riley thinks it does. He blames higher abortion rates among Black women on allegedly irresponsible partners and dysfunctional family structure. He seems to want to say that it’s not poverty that matters, it’s “good” values, like personal responsibility. The reality is that relationships have an economic component. As the social safety net deteriorates, it’s low-income people who are hit the hardest. The desire to have a partner (and two incomes) to help raise a child is a matter of economic survival.

When I look at the disparity in abortion rates, I see women making difficult decisions based on their life circumstances. It is an undeniable truth that the evaluation of material conditions and relationships plays an important role in making reproductive decisions on an individual level. Of course they do. What is happening in our lives always influences the decisions that we make. But to attribute higher abortion rates to one factor (Black men’s “failure to father”) is ignorant at best. First, as I’ve already established, dominant stereotypes about Black fatherhood are simply wrong; the data says so. Secondly, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 89 percent of women selected at least two reasons they were choosing to have an abortion, and 72 percent selected three or more. What this tells us is that reasons for abortion are not clear-cut; they are multifaceted, just like the women who have them. There is no singular narrative to abortion and to suggest so minimizes the strength and compassion women exert in deciding to end a pregnancy.

This is only part of a much larger discussion our society needs to have surrounding abortion rights. We need to focus on women and the reality of their lives, including the structures that shape them, because that is what reproductive rights and justice is really about.

Riley may have fooled some by appealing to sentiments of racial unity. But I’ve attempted to unmask his motivations and highlight that this attack on Black women’s partners not “sticking around” as the primary reason why they have abortions at a higher rate than white women is part of a larger attempt to depoliticize poverty and blame individuals for their own systematic oppression. Riley’s accusation that the left is being hypocritical by mobilizing for Black Lives Matter without critiquing racial disparity in abortion rates completely misses the point. While Black Lives Matter activists target systems of oppression, specifically the prison industrial complex and police brutality, Riley is stuck on analyzing a symptom of the system. His accusation that Black men need to be better fathers and use of self-help rhetoric only act to further distract from the root of the problem: racial oppression and economic exploitation. It is insulting for Riley to suggest he cares about Black lives when he doesn’t respect Black women enough to value their lives and moral agency. If Riley was honestly concerned with Black lives, he would spend his time writing about racism in the justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, job creation, the campaign for a living wage, comprehensive health care (including access to affordable birth control options), and public education (including comprehensive sex ed programs).

Editor’s note: The author’s affiliation is included for informational purposes only; this work was not conducted under the auspices of the Guttmacher Institute. The views expressed herein are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Guttmacher Institute.

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.’”