The billboards loom over two of the poorest parts of Cleveland, in black neighborhoods that have yet to experience the celebrated renaissance of this city.
Their message represents a common tactic of the “right to life” movement: to shame the most vulnerable and badger those who they think are least likely to fight back.
One of the billboards features the profile of a black child facing this message:
12.5 percent of the population
42 percent of abortions.
Tag line: End the violence.
Another billboard shows a pregnant black woman sitting back to back with a young black man. The written message:
Fatherhood starts in the womb.
Support women. Support life.
Both billboards telegraph a sinister message, that black women are witless dupes who cannot be trusted to make their own decisions for their own bodies. One accuses black women of murder; the other urges black men to overrule and intervene.
These are not the first race-baiting billboards by the movement. In 2010, 80 of them peppered the Georgia landscape, referring to black children as “an endangered species.”
Those billboards failed to dissuade the majority of black women who supported abortion rights, and the same will be true of this round. Apparently, Ohio Right to Life loves to waste donors’ money.
Once again, they are going after women who they assumed would have few champions.
Boy, were they wrong.
This time, a recently formed group of black women – New Voices Cleveland – is fighting back.
An excerpt from its open letter to Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis:
“There is something particularly ironic that these heinous billboards are placed in neighborhoods that have battled economic downturns, joblessness, violence, foreclosures and struggling schools. If women in these communities have access to the reproductive healthcare services they need, they are better equipped to raise their families, go to work and attend school to further their education. ... Trust black women to speak for ourselves. We know what is best for us, our families and communities. No one can know all the personal and medical reasons behind every decision to have an abortion. Every person’s case is different, very private and very personal.”
The author of the letter is La’Tasha Mayes, founder and director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, which funnels its activism into New Voices Pittsburgh and, as of this past May, its Cleveland counterpart.
In an interview, Mayes said that with these billboards, Ohio Right to Life’s agenda is as transparent as it is foolish.
“They must think black women’s memories are short,” she said, “or that there’s no organized effort for us to respond to this. They’re absolutely wrong. Black women have always resisted reproductive oppression. Always.”
Dr. Vanessa Cullins is Planned Parenthood’s vice president for external medical affairs. She is also black. I first interviewed her after the Georgia billboards went up.
Back then, she told me: “The language of our painful history has been co-opted and bastardized. They are the racists. These people are trying to use racial issues to destabilize African-American women’s ability to control the size of their families ... and provide a nurturing environment for their children.”
Four years later, she is not surprised to learn they’re at it again.
“Women of all races and religions have abortions,” she said in an interview. “Right to Life is trying to divide our community. What’s sad is they are unwilling to trust African-Americans to do what they need to do to form strong families.
“More than 50 percent of women who get an abortion already have children. These are economic and aspirational decisions to protect their families.”
Mayes echoed Cullins and signaled an impatience with attempts to cast black women as perpetrators of a crime that doesn’t exist.
“They think they can go after women who are marginalized and we won’t do anything about it,” she said. “That ends today.”
If you could have heard her voice, you’d know that was a promise.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.