Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Banners on New Orleans Public Property Raise Questions About What Taxpayers Must Subsidize

Andy Kopsa

Local observers and activists have guessed the banners were hung as part of the ongoing opposition to the building of a Planned Parenthood in New Orleans and to also coincide with Mardi Gras season.

The 16 banners went up in December of last year, strung on streetlamps along the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in one of the most popular tourist areas of New Orleans. “Give her life a chance!” begs the sign copy.

The “her” in question is a 19-week-old fetus, as indicated above the image, featured on a field of pink and apparently in jeopardy. Local observers and activists have guessed the banners were hung as part of the ongoing opposition to the building of a Planned Parenthood in New Orleans and to also coincide with Mardi Gras season. No matter the reason, however, this kind of use of public property by an anti-choice group in New Orleans—or anywhere—is raising questions about what taxpayers must be forced to subsidize.

Typically, banners announcing upcoming festivals, honoring New Orleans musicians, or celebrating the anniversary of longstanding Louisiana institutions are the norm along St. Charles. What is expressly forbidden by the City of New Orleans is advocacy of a political campaign. Even so, the banners were approved in October, then were produced and installed last month by the anti-choice Louisiana Right to Life Federation (LARTL).

Although groups, including LARTL, do not have to pay to use the space, the area is extremely valuable in terms of sheer exposure. In the run-up to Mardi Gras, estimates of nearly a million visitors will stream through the city vying for beads, walking parade routes, and taking in the mystery of the famous city. Thousands upon thousands of streetcar riders and parade-goers will see those banners. Those people could—and likely will—assume, at a glance, that the City of New Orleans endorses LARTL’s anti-choice position.

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Last week, after being silent on the issue and with no mention of the LARTL banners specifically, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the banner approval process would be reviewed. The LARTL anti-choice banners will remain in place until the end of January, as originally scheduled.

For a movement apoplectic that taxpayer dollars go to women’s preventive health care, anti-choice groups like LARTL don’t appear to have a problem jumping on the public funding gravy train. Anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which lie to women to dissuade them from having abortions, have gotten millions in such funding for years; LARTL’s website includes a list of such CPCs. Ridiculously ineffective, inaccurate, and religiously based abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs, many made available through CPCs, have also raked in millions over the years. According to LARTL tax forms, the group itself brought in more than $37,000 in state subsidies via its “Choose Life” plate program in 2013.

This is further reflected in the group’s strategy in New Orleans. Out-of-home advertising—like billboards, posters, and hanging banners—can cost around $3,000 a month depending on the market size and advertising company. There are 16 banners flying down St. Charles. Because the city isn’t charging for that space, the New Orleans taxpayer in-kind donation to Louisiana Right to Life’s anti-abortion advertising campaign conceivably amounts to roughly $48,000.

If Louisiana Right to Life were a political candidate, it would have to claim this in-kind taxpayer donation on its campaign spending reports. Since it is a 501(c)(3) and the group claims the banners aren’t political—rather, that they are “educational”—that $48,000 comes no strings attached. Claiming to be “educational” affords LARTL to spread deception with public funds to a huge audience without having to spend money on advertising placement.

The LARTL ads tick all the deceptive anti-choice boxes: LARTL chose pink as the background color for the banners, often associated with women’s health care. The image of a 19-week fetus, too, was almost certainly deliberate: Statistically, most abortions occur prior to eight weeks’ gestation, when the embryo is the size of a sunflower seed. But even a five-foot banner of a sunflower seed-sized object would not be effective—so they must make passersby believe the abortion of a 19-week fetus is a common event.

The use of the word “her” feeds the right’s lies about the myth of sex-selective abortion in the United States, and the anti-choice movement’s attempts to convince us the true war on women is abortion. It is also suggestive of “personhood,” which is significant when bills to give embryos and fetuses the same legal rights as people continue to resurface in state legislatures and in Congress. Notably, the image of a woman is missing: All we see is a disembodied fetus, the “her” in question.

And yet, somehow all of this is not a political position in clear support of the broad anti-choice campaign against reproductive rights. Instead, the group claims its banners are public education—and the city, at least in the approval process, appears to have believed it.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who represents the district where the banners are hung, told reporters, “It is unfortunate that as long as the banners remain, some people will believe that the message they give is condoned by the city.”

“I can assure you that this is not the case,” Guidry said. “I have agreed to work with the administration to clarify the law and policy that regulate the placement of banners on city property, so as to prevent this from happening again.”

Guidry and other city officials commented on the controversial banners hanging on city property after a petition garnered more than 18,000 signatures from people around the country demanding they be taken down.

When questioned about the banners in an interview with Rewire, Leatrice Dupre, the communications director for Guidry declined to comment and instead issued a statement. “Because this matter is still under advisement, we do not have an update for you before your specified deadline. This subject is a work in progress and we will provide an update once we have something further to report,” Dupre said via email.

When the controversy around the banners first started to grow in early January, Councilwoman Stacy Head came out against them. She called them a nuisance, saying that as a woman, the banners made her feel “discriminated against” and violated her civil liberties. She called on Mayor Landrieu to explain in detail the process by which the banners were approved.

LARTL spokesman Ben Clapper’s response again echoed the banners’ message suggesting that fetuses should be given legal rights that overshadow women’s right to access abortion. He told reporters if Councilwoman Head wanted to protect women’s civil liberties, the question to ask her would be, “When would you be willing to protect the rights of that baby girl? She’s a woman; she’s a female; when are you going to protect her rights?”

Ultimately, Mayor Landrieu agreed that no new banners would be hung after the LARTL banners’ removal this weekend until a clear policy about what messaging is prohibited or approved is in place. (The Landrieu administration did not respond to Rewire’s call and email request for comment.)

Mitch Landrieu, and certainly plenty of local, state, and federal politicians, need a course on what is pro-choice and pro-woman—and, for that matter, what is “educational”—and what is not. Landrieu seems to struggle with the distinction with relative regularity. In 2014, Landrieu issued a proclamation welcoming anti-abortion zealots Operation Save America (OSA) to New Orleans. When it was pointed out to him that OSA had a history of intimidating abortion providers, Landrieu walked back New Orleans’ welcoming embrace.

Anti-choice groups take advantage of that confusion, rebranding themselves as education outposts rather than fact-free hate speech outlets. The LARTL banners in New Orleans may serve as a bellwether for more to come around the country. Extremists will grab the color pink and make false claims about abortion and, by extension, the women who get them. But that cannot be allowed to happen on our dime.

The placement of these banners along St. Charles at this time in the New Orleans festival calendar isn’t just happenstance. This is another calculated move by the anti-choice movement, in the same way that anti-choice groups try to push restrictions on clinics and abortion procedures as concern for “women’s safety” and “marginalized groups.” Politicos on the far right will push for “personhood,” fight to restrict access, and claim they are the true movement for women, all in the name of “public knowledge.” In reality, it is all a deceptive effort to deprive people of the right to choose whether or when to parent. During this heated election year we can expect to see much more of the same.

News Abortion

After Leaving New Orleans, Anti-Choice Protesters Rally in Mississippi

Teddy Wilson

Operation Save America protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Jackson, Mississippi, police department Monday. Inside, fellow anti-choice activists were facing criminal charges associated with protest activities.

After spending a week in New Orleans protesting clinics that provide abortion care, the private home of an abortion provider, and even a church, Operation Save America protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Jackson, Mississippi, police department Monday. Inside, fellow anti-choice activists were facing criminal charges associated with protest activities. The charges stemmed from arrests outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO), the last remaining clinic that provides abortion care in the state.

Those protesting felt the arrests were unfair. “They say you’re in violation of the law, and right across the street there were commercial signs doing just the same thing. They didn’t arrest those people,” Rusty Thomas, the assistant director of OSA, told the ABC affiliate WAPT.

Philip “Flip” Benham, director of Operation Save America (OSA), told the Clarion-Ledger that they are frustrated with the “silly” city ordinances that prohibit signs from resting on the ground on public walkways. He also said that local law enforcement maintains a constant presence waiting to arrest any violators.

“One of the difficult places that we’ve had to deal with the police department is in Jackson, Mississippi,” Benham said. “We just returned from New Orleans where we’re dealing with a very professional police department that understands the first amendment. But unfortunately here in Jackson these police and this police department [have] made it paramount that Christians should not be allowed out in the street.”

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Three of the four individuals facing charges were found guilty by a Jackson Municipal Court judge, and one individual’s charges were dropped.

Roy McMillan was found guilty for obstructing the sidewalk entrance, as was Harriett Ashley, who was also found guilty for failing to obey a police officer. Both McMillan and Ashley are residents of Jackson, and regularly protest the JWHO clinic.

Chet Gallagher was found guilty of interference with a lawful business, while Cal Zastrow’s charges were dropped. Both Gallagher and Zastrow are involved with OSA protests activities and were in New Orleans for the week-long protests.

DuVergne Gaines, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, was in Jackson City Court for the proceedings. In a statement following the verdict, Gaines called the result a huge victory.

“These extremists were held accountable for obstructing access to the last remaining clinic in the state of Mississippi, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” Gaines said. “They have, literally, laid siege to this facility for the last two years since we learned its fate was in jeopardy because of Mississippi’s TRAP [targeted regulation of abortion providers] law. We’re thankful for the police department’s vigilance in enforcing the law.”

The convictions come a week after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Pro-Life Mississippi in a U.S. District Court against the Jackson police department, accusing the department of “blatant and ongoing violation of free speech rights of pro-life advocates.”

Commentary Religion

Why Did Anti-Choice Activists Harass Unitarians in New Orleans?

Amanda Marcotte

Last week activists interrupted a New Orleans Unitarian Universalist service to hector the congregants, demonstrating how the anti-choice movement is seeking to attack the long-standing American tradition of religious tolerance.

As Teddy Wilson reported for Rewire, anti-choice protesters from the group Operation Save America spent a week recently harassing the residents of New Orleans (as though that city has not had its share of grief in recent years). The ostensible reason for the protests was to target a Planned Parenthood that’s being built in the area to provide legal abortion care, but one incident in particular showed how “abortion” continues to be a Trojan horse for the real agenda here: a fundamentalist attack on the long-standing American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.

Some of the anti-choice activists invaded the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans while members were observing a moment of silence for a deceased congregant and proceeded to abuse and harass the people inside the church. The folks from Operation Save America were hardly ashamed of this deplorable behavior, instead bragging on their website about disrupting services at the “synagogue of Satan” and making special note of haranguing the female pastor, who they called a “pastor,” in scare quotes. (But they’re in this for “life” and not because they have a problem with women!) This behavior isn’t necessarily any worse than the miseries they subject clinic patients and workers to, but it serves as a reminder that the reason anti-choice “protesters” get into the lifestyle is that they are bullies, full stop.

Why did they pick on a Unitarian church? The ostensible reason is Unitarian support for reproductive rights and social justice, which antis seem to have decided Jesus was against, despite biblical evidence to the contrary. But let’s be honest here: Their hostility against the church likely was just as much, if not more, about the long-standing fundamentalist hostility to the Unitarian church for being open-minded and accepting of people who have a variety of beliefs. Unitarians have been targeted for hate crimes before, most notably in a Knoxville shooting in 2008.

(It’s worth pointing out that while Operation Save America—like most fundamentalist organizations—imagines itself “restoring” some kind of halcyon past, the Unitarian Universalist Church has deeper roots in American history than Bible-thumping fundamentalism. The two churches, which combined in the 1960s, date back to 1793 and 1825. In contrast, belief in the “Rapture,” which is a common marker of modern evangelical fundamentalists, only really started in the late 19th century and only became popular in the late 20th century.)

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Basically, “abortion” was just a flimsy cover for what’s really going on, which is a fundamentalist war on the very Enlightenment principles—of which the Unitarian Universalist Church is a long-standing historical emblem—that undergird our Constitution. There are many pro-choice churches, but the religious pluralism of the Unitarians is what really sets fundamentalists off. Indeed, there’s a strong reason to believe that the religious right is basically using the battle over reproductive rights to advance a much larger agenda against religious tolerance. And the strategy is to argue that their own “religious freedom” cannot be protected without taking yours away.

That is, after all, what’s at the heart of the two recent Supreme Court decisions over whether or not abortion clinics can have buffer zones and whether or not your boss’s opinion on birth control should matter more than your own when it comes to insurance coverage of contraception. In both cases, anti-choicers argued that their own freedom could only be protected by taking someone else’s away. With the abortion buffer zone case, anti-choicers argued that their “right” to impose their views on you should trump your right to ignore them. In the Hobby Lobby case, anti-choicers argued that “religious freedom” can only be protected by forcing other people’s health-care plans to meet your own religious beliefs, just because they work for you. In both cases, anti-choicers won with the argument that the fundamentalist “right” to impose their religion trumps the American tradition of religious tolerance.

Now the argument that the “religious freedom” of fundamentalists relies on taking the freedoms of others away is out there, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was heard recently encouraging opponents of gay rights to see themselves as victimized and their religious freedom being trod upon, even though they are actually the ones seeking to take away the rights of others. “[T]oday, there is a growing intolerance on this issue, intolerance towards those who continue to support traditional marriage,” he said, claiming that it’s wrong, for instance, for the CEO of Mozilla to be forced out for being anti-gay. (Rubio did not extend this logic to its conclusion and argue for reinstating Donald Sterling as the owner of the LA Clippers. Why is it OK to fire people for being racist, but not for being anti-gay, Rubio?)

But mostly his argument rested on the assumption that calling bigotry by its rightful name is somehow a grievous violation of human rights. “And I promise you that even before this speech is over, I will be attacked as a hater, a bigot or someone who is anti-gay,” he said. “This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy.”

The problem with this is no one is actually being “intolerant” of homophobes. No one is arguing that their freedom of speech should be denied, nor are they arguing that churches that preach anti-gay views should be shut down. No one is denying their right to organize or to hate gay people as long as they want. The “offensive” thing that gay rights activists are doing is fighting for their own rights. At the end of the day, what this argument boils down to is suggesting that the religious freedom of fundamentalists can only be protected by taking away the freedom, religious and otherwise, of gay people to marry—that your same-sex marriage somehow deprives them of rights.

Obviously, people should support reproductive rights for the sake of women’s health and well-being. But it’s also important to understand that while the attacks on reproductive rights are quite sincere—antis really are upset that you have sex without their permission!—the issue is part and parcel of a larger campaign to end the long American tradition of religious plurality, of understanding that the best way for religious freedom to be protected is for everyone to stay in their own lanes. It’s about giving fundamentalists not just the right to practice their own faith but the “right” to foist their faith on you.

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