On May 5, one of Cherisse Scott’s colleagues alerted her that a new anti-abortion billboard featuring a black infant had been put up in the predominantly black Midtown neighborhood in Memphis. Surrounding the adorable black baby were the words “Dad’s Princess” and “#heartbeat at 18 days.” Eventually they identified two more billboards with this message in the city. One showed a black baby, the other featured a white infant.
This wasn’t the first time that Scott, the founder and executive director of a Memphis reproductive justice organization called SisterReach, had dealt with anti-choice billboards. In 2010 she was a member of Trust Black Women, a collaborative formed by reproductive justice activists to respond to a national wave of racially charged billboards about abortion in the black community. The Radiance Foundation and Life Always, both Christian anti-abortion groups, were behind those signs that made very explicit claims that abortion was black genocide.
Scott mobilized SisterReach’s supporters quickly in response to this year’s billboards which were created by a predominantly white, Catholic-led group called Prolife Across America. “The billboards were racist, divisive and offensive and they needed to come down,” says Scott in a recent telephone interview.
About one week after learning about Prolife Across America’s billboards, Scott led a press conference and a campaign asking supporters to call Clear Channel, the company that owns the billboard space, and tell them that the signs were "racist and offensive." Scott says she doesn’t know how many people participated in the campaign, but she says that two days after launching it, all three billboards were taken down.
The "Billboard People"
In a telephone interview, Prolife Across America CEO Mary Ann Kuharski denies that the billboards are racist. "[They’re] far from it. We’re here to offer help and alternatives. I don’t know how that could possibly be the other way around."
Kuharski says her group, which she started in her Minneapolis living room in 1989, has mounted billboards in 44 states. Each year, she says, Prolife Across America puts up 6,000 to 7,000 billboards. On their website, group members even describe themselves as "the billboard people."
According to Clear Channel, a billboard in Memphis can cost anywhere from $1,000 for one day, to $4,000 for a month. Kuharski says her group negotiates a non-profit rate but she refuses to disclose the amount.
Based on the designs Prolife Across America has in an on-line archive, its billboards feature infants of many different races. Nearly all of them assert that the human heartbeat begins just 18 days after conception.
According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a fetus’ heartbeat begins "toward the end of the first trimester," about 24 days after conception.
When I ask about Kuharski about the source of her 18-day heartbeat statistic, she replies, “Medical evidence. We’ve got all of this documented.” She then pulls up a Life magazine article titled "Life Before Birth" that came out on April 30, 1965. "It’s a pretty old issue," she admits. But Kuharski refuses to produce a more recent source for the 18-day claim. “I’m not going to give you any additional research,” she says.
“Twenty seven years and I’ve never had that happen before,” Kuharski says of the SisterReach campaign. “I’ve never had a group, any group, call a press conference to say that they were opposed to our billboards.”
Scott doesn’t mince words about the removals: “What you don’t get to do is come here and throw up inflammatory billboards,” she says. “Where have you been if you’re so interested in black communities? You’re not here battling abject poverty or fighting for comprehensive sex education.”
I share Scott’s charge of apathy and Kuharski shoots back, "You can’t help anybody in any of those areas if you’ve killed them first. So I don’t need to prove [anything], or give anybody my credentials. I can still offer alternatives to abortion in any of these areas.“
Unsurprisingly, Kuharski disagrees with what Scott has asserted about the billboards. Scott accuses Prolife Across America of strategically placing some of its signs in predominantly black communities. But Kuharski claims that she has no control over where they go up because she negotiates a non-profit rate with the companies that own the space.
Scott says the billboards in Memphis came down because SisterReach put pressure on Clear Channel. Kuharski says they were removed because Prolife Across America had contracted to have them up for just a month.
Just as they sharply disagree with one another’s claims about their campaigns, the two women themselves couldn’t be more different. Kuharski is a white Minneapolis-based wife and mother of 13 children, many of whom are adopted. Scott, a black women who appears to be decades younger than Kuharski, is raising her 12-year-old son in Memphis.
Prolife Across America had a budget of $1.8 million dollars in 2014, according to one of its its tax return. While the organization runs a free hotline that allegedly nets 200 to 250 calls a month, the vast majority of its funds went to billboards and other educational media campaigns. And Kuharski received just $1 in compensation that year.
SisterReach, in contrast, had a budget of $147, 520 in 2014. Tax documents are not yet available for the group, but according to an e-mail from Scott she made $33,500 that year. Scott says her group’s work is spread thin across many of the issues that are important to the reproductive justice movement, like sex education, supporting teen moms and healthy relationships.
Neither woman disclosed who their funders were that year.
Of course the biggest thing that separates Scott and Kuharski is how they perceive abortion. When I ask Kuharski what her motivation is for working on this particular issue, she responds, “I can’t imagine my kids growing up in a world where we kill one human being to solve the problem of another.”
Scott says the work of groups like Prolife Across America is disingeneous. “If they were really pro-life, then the lived conditions of the people who need abortions would be different. They are not interested in the life of the child, just the birth of the child.”
Since the Memphis campaign, other reproductive justice organizations such as Atlanta’s SisterSong are rallying against similar billboards that have appeared in predominantly black neighborhoods in the city. In a statement SisterSong executive director Monica Raye Simpson says, “These billboards are nothing more than a consistent attempt to instill fear and shame around making our own decisions about what is best for our bodies and families.”
SisterSong, which pulled together the nine-organization Trust Black Women Partnership in 2010, will take similar approach to SisterReach’s—organizing community members in opposition to the billboards in their city. In a political climate where advances in reproductive rights are limited, these campaigns against billboard messages can be an opportunity to gather support. But Scott, Simpson and Toni Bond Leonard, one of the founders of the black reproductive justice movement, all express some frustration with having to expend their energy fighting against these billboards. “It’s such a time-waster to even have to stop doing the important work,” says Scott.
“It’s frustrating that our movement is forced to react to these billboards,” says Leonard during a telephone interview. “One day, we need to say, ‘You know what? Nobody has time to react to their childish media ploys.’"
In the meantime, as reproductive justice groups continue to challenge anti-abortion billboards they see as racist, they say they are also working on a more proactive strategy. “We’re working on a counter billboard strategy,” says Scott. “We’ve started preparing resources to put our own billboards up.”