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Billboards are the wrong place to fight over abortion

May 24, 2019 GMT

WASHINGTON — Driving along Colorado’s scenic byways, one might be distracted by a series of billboards promoting safe abortions or, depending upon one’s route, alternatives to abortion, as well as assorted child-rearing recommendations.

If abortion was once a relatively quiet matter involving women and their doctors, it is no more. Thanks to extreme anti-abortion legislation in several states, notably Alabama, as well as laws elsewhere relaxing standards for late-term terminations, the American landscape may soon resemble a political campaign of dueling candidates.

Family vacations, meanwhile, may impose uncomfortable conversations with the kids. “Mom, what’s an abortion?” I remember once trying to answer this question for a young child. He burst into tears before I could find better words to make this thing not a nightmare.


One billboard causing controversy near the Utah border reads: “Welcome to Colorado, where you can get a safe, legal abortion.” I guess if you’re a woman who is conflicted over her pregnancy and you drive past the sign, you might find some relief in the message. But for most other people — that is, me — it would surely be an unwelcome intrusion upon their meditations.

Not to make light of a serious issue that we’ve been debating for 40 years, but our interstate highway system risks becoming a sticky-note space ride through someone else’s business, as 50 states adopt 50 different abortion policies. Earlier this month, Alabama passed legislation banning abortion in all cases, unless a woman’s life is threatened (with no exceptions for rape or incest). Several other states recently have passed so-called “heartbeat” bills prohibiting abortion after six weeks, when something like a heartbeat is detected.

The group behind the Colorado billboard — Keep Abortion Safe — is unabashed in its purposes. Co-founder Fawn Bolak says the group hopes that the sign will bring women from neighboring states to Colorado for their reproductive needs.

Even recognizing prochoice advocates’ desire to amplify their message of safe and available abortions, the billboard smacks of commercialism. Advertising abortion as a commodity further dehumanizes the unborn and diminishes the moral impact of what is proposed. Will discounts next be offered in exchange for referrals?

Billboards in states where “heartbeat” legislation has passed or is percolating would have a distinctly different look. Georgia has more than 9,800 billboards, while Louisiana boasts 7,000. Clearly, there’s plenty of room for everybody to express themselves.


Pro-life billboards often feature babies with a message about gestational benchmarks. In one, produced by the group Prolife Across America, a baby exclaims: “What? I could feel pain before I was born?”

The stage has been set for states to define themselves according to legislators’ interpretations. If many people (my hand is raised) have been offended by huge posters displaying partially aborted fetuses at rallies, just imagine what could be down the line.

States regulate the content of billboards, so perhaps we’re in luck, but free speech challenges wouldn’t be surprising as the two sides escalate their war of words and images. Meanwhile, road travelers are involuntary witnesses to a debate that many would prefer not to have. To a nation defined by individual autonomy, the only thing worse than the personal tragedy of abortion is the audacity of the self-ordained to govern when and under what circumstances women have children. Billboard that.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.