Commentary Politics

What John Boehner Can Learn From Abortion History About Ending the Shutdown

Carole Joffe

House Speaker John Boehner, like New York's George Michaels during the state's 1970 abortion vote, has the opportunity to do the right thing, even if it costs him his speakership. But will he do it?

Click here for all our coverage of the government shutdown.

As our country enters the second week of a government shutdown, with no resolution in sight and increasing bitterness between not only Democrats and Republicans, but within the Republican Party itself, the pressures are intensifying on John Boehner, the speaker of the House—the person who does have the power to end the shutdown by bringing a no-strings-attached budget bill (a “clean continuing resolution”) to a vote. As conventional wisdom goes, Boehner himself neither wants the shutdown to continue nor does he approve of the next great disaster looming—the issue of raising the debt ceiling—but he is paralyzed because of the power of 80 or so Tea Partiers in his party, who refuse such a “surrender.” In bluntest terms, if he allows such a vote to occur, and to pass with a majority of Democratic members’ votes, John Boehner’s reign as speaker would likely be over.

Observing John Boehner’s predicament, I am reminded of an early episode in U.S. abortion history, when a politician was similarly under intense pressure. As is commonly known, New York state legalized abortion in 1970, and in the several years before Roe v. Wade, thousands of women came from all over the country to receive abortions in the first generation of free-standing clinics that were established at that time to meet this huge demand. What is less remembered today, some 43 years later, is how close the vote in the New York state legislature was.

As a sign of how much abortion politics have changed since that time, the politicians leading the push for legalization was a Republican, former state Assemblywoman Constance Cook, and many of those supporting the bill were also from that party. To be sure, as a sign of how abortion politics have not entirely changed, the New York Times then reported about the abortion debate: “No issue in recent years has resulted in the degree of bitterness and emotion” in the state legislature.

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Cook knew that she had sufficient votes in the state senate. The votes in the assembly, however, were seen as a toss-up. When the final vote was taken in that body on April 9, the tally stood at 74 to 74—the bill had failed. As the vote was announced, however, George Michaels, a little known Democrat from a heavily Catholic district in upstate New York, rose and with his voice shaking said, “I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career. But I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill. I ask that my vote be changed from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’” Michaels was correct—he was defeated in his next election. But he voted as his conscience, and apparently his family, led him to do.

Were John Boehner to allow a “clean” vote on ending the government shutdown, he very likely would lose his speakership (though probably not his House seat). And I have no idea whether his family members, like Michaels’, are urging a particular course of action. But I do know that as the shutdown drags on, more and more Americans are suffering: from the loss of income in the case of laid-off government workers, and from the loss of government-provided services for millions of others. John Boehner, like George Michaels before him, has the opportunity to do the right thing, even if it is costly.

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 Human Rights

The 50th Anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer: Remembering What Fannie Lou Hamer Taught Us

Jazmine Walker

Modern Mississippi freedom fighters must remain committed to Hamer’s legacy of bridging voting and reproductive rights into a comprehensive reproductive justice effort to protect Black women and other populations that are vulnerable to violations of both.

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

This June marks the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer—a campaign launched to end the systematic and violent disenfranchisement of Black people in Mississippi by registering them to vote. This effort was not only to draw national attention to the terror Black people experienced as they fought for their right to vote, but also to cultivate the organizing skills of a network of local leaders.

Fannie Lou Hamer was one of those leaders. She used the power of storytelling to compel America to recognize the humanity of poor Black people in Mississippi.

This is also the 50th anniversary of Fannie Lou Hamer sharing her experiences on a national stage during her testimony at the Council of Federated Organizations’ sponsored hearing at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. She shared the brutal injustices she suffered for trying to vote, as well as the injustices of forced sterilization of Black women in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Hamer’s inclusion of sterilization in a hearing primarily organized to ensure the protection of Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers and lay the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act highlighted how both the right to vote and reproductive freedom were necessary to justice for Black women in Mississippi.

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Fifty years later, we have seen a separation of voting and reproductive rights in mainstream movements that has only accelerated Mississippi policymakers’ transparent attempts to roll back the gains of Freedom Summer, through aggressive legislation to institute voter identification laws, close the state’s only remaining abortion clinic, and generally limit the reproductive choices of Mississippi women.

The zealous legislature has successfully launched a multi-pronged attack of reproductive and voter suppression that endangers the already precarious livelihoods of Mississippi’s Black women and families. As advocates, our demand for justice must also be multi-pronged to avoid a return to dehumanizing policies that Hamer recounted during her testimony.

In her testimony, Hamer connected reproductive rights and enfranchisement. She revealed:

One of the other things that happened in Sunflower County, the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of ten Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied. They are getting up a law that said if a woman has an illegitimate baby and then a second they could draw time for six months or a five-hundred-dollar fine. What they didn’t tell is they are already doing these things, not only to single women, but to married women.

As Hamer noted, in 1964 the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a sterilization bill that would criminalize women for having children by fining or imprisoning women who birthed children while unmarried; women could elect to be sterilized in order to avoid imprisonment and/or the fine. Though the legislation explicitly targeted unmarried women, many poor Black women had already fallen victim to involuntary sterilization regardless of their marital status. Fortunately, the bill died in the state senate because of pressure from national media outlets and the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Still, modern Mississippi freedom fighters must remain committed to Hamer’s legacy of bridging voting and reproductive rights into a comprehensive reproductive justice effort to protect Black women and other populations that are vulnerable to violations of both.

Attempts to transform the state’s social reality into one that mirrors what Hamer spoke of 50 years ago were on full display in the 2011 election, when two ballot initiatives attempted to limit the voting power and reproductive decision-making of Mississippi families. Initiative 26, a “personhood” initiative, sought to define life at conception, thus outlawing abortion by deeming it homicide, while Initiative 27 sought to require potential voters to present photo identification at all polls in the state. The “personhood” bill was voted down by more than 55 percent of voters, but the voter ID initiative passed.

The voting law takes effect across the state during the upcoming June 3 primary election and stands to disenfranchise some 48,000 low-income Mississippians. Because voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise the poor through cost and geographic barriers to access, more than 35 percent of Black and Latina women living in poverty in Mississippi face compounding disadvantages at the hands of this legislation. This systematic disenfranchisement, reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, limits these women’s ability to use their constitutional right to vote against oppressive legislators who prioritize conservative, restrictive ideology over their health and well-being.

Though “personhood” failed in Mississippi in 2011, Gov. Phil Bryant has made it very clear that he is committed to ending safe abortion access in the state, and the actions of the legislature reflect his commitment. While it is unclear if the sole abortion clinic will survive the ongoing appeals process of legislation that requires each of the clinic’s physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, Bryant has signed a law that regulates women’s access to medication abortion. The law requires a doctor to be present while a patient takes the medication, rather than allowing a patient to simply receive a prescription and take it in the comfort of her own home. This means that women who do not live in close proximity to a clinic and cannot travel there multiple times may be forced into a surgical abortion option or they may eschew an abortion altogether. Bryant also recently signed an 18-week abortion ban, which unconstitutionally restricts women’s reproductive health.

The barriers erected by the aforementioned legislation will be greatly exacerbated if the state’s abortion clinic loses its appeal and closes. Women seeking abortions will ultimately have no choice but to leave the state to receive an abortion, which is often unfeasible for poor women, especially those in rural areas who lack the transportation, money, and job flexibility to take a multiday, out-of-state trip during the week. And because of the new voter restrictions, these same women, who are the most vulnerable and in the greatest need of legislative change, may lack the ability to exercise their voting power in pursuit of that change.

State lawmakers need to trust Mississippians to make healthy decisions for their families.

With little voter accountability, Gov. Bryant continues to roll back programs that would help low-income families support the children they have, despite his crusade to protect the “unborn.” Bryant and other Mississippi conservatives have blocked Medicaid expansion that would have insured an additional 300,000 low-income people. Then, they will subject TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients to drug testing, if the state deems them likely substance users based on a questionnaire. Given the country’s history of deploying stereotypes against Black women, this legislation will likely fall hardest on them. If recipients test positive more than once, their benefits will be disrupted, thereby adversely affecting children whose parents struggle with substance use. In 2013, Mississippi also spent $1.6 million on the e-Childcare system, which forces parents who receive childcare vouchers to scan their fingers to monitor their child’s daycare attendance. If the child misses more that 15 days in the fiscal year, parents will lose their vouchers. These laws may not be as harsh as the sterilization bill, but they still endanger Black women and their families, who are at greater risk of losing equal voting and reproductive health access.

Fifty years later, national civil rights leaders are returning to the state to advocate for freedom, but they must remember that Mississippians do not live single-issue lives. It is critical that organizers build and strengthen resources across movements in Mississippi to fight back against laws like these that perpetuate systematic oppression on many levels, continuing to disadvantage poor families of color. National organizers also have to trust Mississippians to speak the truths that can only come from being rooted in these communities.

For Fannie Lou Hamer, reproductive freedom was always a part of Freedom Summer, and it is time we follow her lead. Activists must commit to the intersection of race and gender politics, examining both voter and reproductive injustices since they affect the same vulnerable populations. Our resistance to these violations must be as coupled, complex, dedicated, and fierce as our oppression if we are to succeed. The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony is the perfect time to recommit ourselves to this approach.