Taking down an anti-choice ad

March 3, 2011

Edna Bonhomme looks at the recent furor over a racist anti-abortion campaign in New York City--and why the right's claims that abortion hurts the Black community ring hollow.

UPON DISCOVERING an anti-abortion billboard in the Soho neighborhood of New York City, I was reminded of the racist strategies that anti-abortion demagogues use to scapegoat minority women.

The billboard featured a young African American girl in a pink dress staring afar with a bewildered expression. The message above her head read, "The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb."

Not only was this an appalling tactic by the Religious Right, but it vilified black female bodies and undermined women's right to have an abortion.

The billboard was taken down from 6th Avenue in Soho on February 24 after a number of people wrote statements objecting to the billboard and others pressured the advertising company through with phone calls.

Before the removal, Planned Parenthood issued a statement saying the organization "finds the billboard erected at the corner of 6th Avenue and Watts Street in Manhattan to be an offensive and condescending effort to stigmatize and shame African American women while attempting to discredit the work of Planned Parenthood."

C. Nicole Mason, executive director of the Woman of Color Policy Network at New York University, objected to the billboard and wrote a letter to Peter Costanza, vice president of LaMar Billboards, the group hired to display the anti-abortion message.

The ad was created by a campaign called That's Abortion and paid for by Life Always, a national campaign targeting health care centers that provide abortions. Their most prominent target is the Planned Parenthood Federation.

Currently, the group's board of directors consists of officials that align themselves with right-wing groups--including Stephen Broden, a Fox News commentator and a former Ronald Reagan Gold Medal Award recipient. Broden's biography on the "That's Abortion" Web site claims he is concerned with "the staggering number of abortions within the African American community [that] is threatening the sustainability of the African American race in the United States."

If this were truly the case, he would be rallying against racial profiling, for more funding in public schools and for an end to the housing crisis, issues that disproportionately affect African Americans.

Tricia Fraser, the mother of the young girl pictured in the advertisement, was upset that her daughter's photograph had been used for an anti-abortion campaign without her consent. She has stated that she disagrees with the message of Life Always and does not want her child to be the visual brand of their anti-abortion campaign.

Although it didn't stay up for long, the billboard was particularly egregious because it simultaneously assaulted African American women and abortion rights. Those behind it are racist anti-abortion provocateurs.

SINCE THE 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that marked the legal right for a woman to have an abortion in the U.S., anti-choice advocates have used ideological and legal measures to restrict the terms and conditions to terminate a pregnancy.

The Hyde Amendment, passed in Congress in 1976, excluded federal funding of abortions for low-income women except in the cases of rape, incest or when a pregnant woman's life is endangered. Additionally, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 permits HMOs serving Medicaid recipients to refuse to cover counseling or referral for services such as abortion.

More recently, the Arizona House of Representatives approved HB 2443, a bill that would fine medical practitioners or organizations that provide abortions to people who terminate their pregnancy based on sex or gender. Rep. Steve Montenegro proposed the bill, claiming the legislation would prevent people from discriminating against a fetus. Such a statement seems insidious given Arizona's passage of SB1070--a bill that actively discriminates against people who are suspected to be undocumented.

Among other things, the sponsors of HB 2443, mostly Republicans, indicated that they were interested in protecting minority communities. If this is the case, they should prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from raiding Latino communities.

In another recent attack on abortion rights, Georgia Rep. Bobby Franklin presented an ominous bill to the state's General Assembly that would make it mandatory for authorities to investigate miscarriages. To probe the personal lives of women under the guise of "prenatal murder" is paternalistic and moralistic. Additionally, it fails to acknowledge the needs and concerns of the women who may or may not reproduce. Not only would such legislation be invasive, it resembles Orwell's 1984 "Big Brother" surveillance on female bodies.

On February 18, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pence Amendment (Amendment 11), offered by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) that would deny all Title X funding to any reproductive health organizations that provide abortions. Approximately 4,600 public and private entities, including family planning clinics, hospitals and public health departments, receive Title X funds each year.

Currently, Planned Parenthood provides 3 million people each year with health services, including contraceptives, sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, vasectomy, and abortion services. Low-income women and men depend heavily on these funds to pay for preventive care and basic health care services. Restricting all federal funding to agencies that provide abortion services further solidifies the right's attack on women bodies and choices.

If we were to consider the health and well being of women, we would ensure that they have access to free contraception, abortion, treatment for sexually transmitted infections and other reproductive health care. The proposals in Arizona, Georgia and Congress are sparking an ideological and material debate about abortion, in the context of a drive toward austerity measures.

Religious Right groups such as Life Always are using every opportunity to demonize women's bodies and restrict their access to safe and affordable abortions--and they expect to put up more billboards throughout the country.

One lesson we can learn from the response in New York City is that we should not stand idle as bigoted messages are put out. Even seemingly minor actions such as contacting the companies who place these ads or writing statements of objection can lead to them being rescinded.

Defeating conservative forces like Life Always will require constant agitation. During this age of austerity, pro-abortion activists should stand emboldened to protect the rights of women to choose whatever they deem is appropriate for their bodies.

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