Cleveland’s black community has strong feelings about new abortion billboards


CLEVELAND, Ohio — The rollout of a new billboard campaign called My Abortion, My Life is sparking a lot of conversation around Cleveland, including in the city’s predominantly African American community. And that’s exactly the intent, according a article that has been shared by more than 77,000 readers.

The billboards are set up to look like a fill-in-the-blank question on a quiz — and all of the answers challenge negative stereotypes about abortion. One reads, “Abortion is necessary.” Another: “Abortion is a family value.”

Preterm, an abortion care and sexual health services provider, is responsible for the billboard campaign.

Preterm’s campaign comes on the heels of a recent anti-abortion bill that was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in December. The new law, which passed despite some opposition from Kasich’s fellow Republicans, makes it a crime for a doctor to end a pregnancy based on knowledge of Down Syndrome. The genetic disorder is typically associated with physical and intellectual delays, as well as conditions such as heart defects and respiratory or hearing problems.

In a statement to Scene Magazine, Preterm executive director, Chrissie France said that such laws chip away at abortion rights. “In response, Preterm is sending a powerful message to our legislators with this billboard campaign,” she said.

One politically astute observer in the local black community, Mark Dixon, told 50 States of Blue the campaign’s simple messaging and quick call to action (namely, to visit Preterm’s website) contain all the elements of marketing success. Mark Dixon worked in marketing for about a decade at the now defunct Pioneer-Standard Electronics, Inc., distributor of IBM, Digital, Compaq, Hewlett Packard and other consumer electronics.

Most of all, Dixon said, the campaign has people talking — and not always in a good way.

Roshawn Sample, executive director of Union-Miles Development Corporation, a community engagement group in Cleveland, told 50 States that Preterm’s messaging is unacceptable. “No way should those signs have been put in place without input of residents,” she said. Sample added that she believes the campaign negatively targets African-American and urban communities, and said that no such messaging is found in suburban or affluent communities. She argued that content addressing healthcare disparities, contraception, and sex education would serve a far greater purpose. “Preterm offers many services that are greatly needed in communities of color. However, the billboards miss the mark and have disappointed many,” she said.

“Actually I hate all the messages,” said Meredith Turner. The former longtime Community Liaison to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown contends the billboards are “promoting death” rather than choice. “Who wants to wake up bombarded with these messages, she asked.” Turner called the messages insensitive and echoed Sample’s sentiments.“These billboards miss the mark. I don’t see them in other communities, only in black communities.”

Notably, however, the idea that abortion services or ads are “targeted” at black communities is a common anti-abortion myth — for instance, fewer than 4 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are located in communities where more than one-third of the population is black.

In 2014, Ohio Right to Life posted a controversial series of billboards of their own, including one featuring a black couple and the slogan “Fatherhood starts in the womb.” Some black women criticized those ads as racist for promoting negative stereotypes about black fatherhood and shaming black women who seek abortion. It’s also surprisingly common for pro-life advocacy groups to compare abortion to slavery, or even argue that it constitutes “black genocide” — arguments that many black women consider racist and offensive, since they compare black women who seek abortion to murderous slaveholders.

Some in the community think Preterm’s messaging is fine as is, and many advocates argue that bold messaging like Preterm’s is necessary to fight social stigma around abortion. But many in Cleveland’s African American community think messages like “Abortion is a family value” are too bold, and should be replaced by sentiments like “Abortion is your right.” 

Newly elected Ward 7 Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones said he’s had an initial conversation with Preterm CEO, Chrisse France, and that she is very open to sitting down with him and working with the community on any issues they may have regarding the billboard campaign.

Like Sample and Turner, Jones also said he believes a woman should have the right make her own medical decisions. The 33 year-old went on to say he is only concerned with the objections to messaging and target placement that his constituents want him to address with France and her team.

Indeed, the primary criticism in this particular abortion debate appears not to be about Preterm as an organization — rather with a concern that this new billboard campaign could be perceived as promoting negative stereotypes about black women and abortion, and a belief that focusing on contraception, education, and equal access to healthcare are more important.

Still, despite this kind of backlash — and despite the conventional wisdom that the black community often aligns with white conservatives on the issue of abortion — black Americans actually support abortion rights at slightly higher rates than whites. And when pollsters ask questions that make clear distinctions between moral and legal views about abortion, support rises even higher. In one poll, 8 in 10 African Americans agreed with the statement that “regardless of how I personally feel about abortion, I believe it should remain legal and women should be able to get safe abortions.”