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.