Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another pro-life (but racially charged?) billboard

Chicago billboard

We've already discussed a NYC billboard from the same organization, and this one -- headed for the south side of Chicago -- is sure to trigger some heated debates.  Putting aside the troubling claims (e.g., accusations of genocide) made by the sponsoring organization, I think the basic message of the billboard -- think twice about the human lives cut short by abortion -- is powerful and needed.  It's obviously not a message that is needed only by the African American community, however, and to the extent that there is an implicit suggestion that President Obama was more vulnerable to abortion solely because he is African American (though born to a white mother), the billboard is on some shaky and disturbing ground.  We need to account for the nexus between race and socioeconomic conditions so as not to present a misleading picture, though I realize that nuance is not the billboard's primary aim.


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I agree that it's playing with fire. But, in fairness, the president's personal vulnerability, had abortion been as readily available at the time, is not based solely on his race. His mother was an unwed teen. He himself spoke about that situation, albeit without any abortion mention, when the Palin daughter's pregnancy became public.

Also, as to race, he would have been especially vulnerable precisely because he was not merely black, but because he was the black son of a white mother. I'd venture that the abortion rate for that alignment has historically been far higher than any other group.

Perhaps none of that reduces the controversial impact of the billboard, but it does make his life story an especially powerful example, for more reasons than race alone.

Posted by: joe reader | Mar 31, 2011 4:56:34 PM

The poster in a vacuum isn't necessarily racial. In fact, it's stylized so as to obscure Pres. Obama's race. Still, it's difficult to imagine a similar poster with President Bush or Vice President Biden, etc.

On the other hand, if abortion were illegal, and we assume the worst about "back-alley" abortions, and that a preponderance of its victims were African American, I doubt pro-choice people would be bashful about pointing that out.

Posted by: JohnMcG | Mar 31, 2011 5:28:34 PM

“It's obviously not a message that is needed only by the African American community, however, and to the extent that there is an implicit suggestion that President Obama was more vulnerable to abortion solely because he is African American (though born to a white mother), the billboard is on some shaky and disturbing ground.”

I don’t see the billboard as talking about the president as being more vulnerable to abortion solely, or even partly, because his father was black. It says, to me, a baby is killed every 21 minutes in America, and one of them could have been our next possible leader. It’s an instrumentalist argument against abortion.

The billboard is saying: we don’t know what sort of talent we as a society are denying ourselves. It’s not a pro-life argument based on the inherent worth of every human; rather, it’s instrumentalist in the sense of “look what we might be denying ourselves.”

If you are trying to get folks to identify with the killed babies, make the potential killed baby one of the leaders of the local team. The comedian Adam Carolla has noted we all like to root for our own team. In Chicago, the president is viewed as ‘one of us’ (a Chicagoan made good) so it makes sense to erect that billboard in a Chicago neighborhood. It seems the same billboard with a photo of Walter Payton, Ernie Banks, Michael Jordan, Ryne Sandberg, or Mike Ditka could have also been erected in Chicago. You could erect the exact same billboard in Baltimore with a picture of Cal Ripken and it would be conveying the exact same message, which is not about race per se, but about getting the folks who view the billboard to identify with the killed babies.

Posted by: DFoley | Mar 31, 2011 5:35:27 PM


I am just curious. What if one approached the makers of the billboard, saying that they were on shaky ground because they are portraying an African-American, rather than making a socioeconomic connection, and they replied, "We consider Pres. Obama to be white, as he was born of a white mother, and do not take blood % measurement or his own predilections into account. We are also solid pro-life Democrats and think that Pres. Obama is an incredible leader." Would that change your reasoning at all?


Posted by: Jonathan | Mar 31, 2011 5:37:13 PM

Good questions. The premise of my comments was also shaped by the fact (as I read elsewhere) that the billboards are going up on the (predominantly African American) south side of town. I'm not sure that the group's statement would change my view, Jonathan, as Pres. Obama is not generally considered to be white by the public, including those viewing the billboard. To be clear, though, my view is that this is an important message, and if, as DFoley suggests, we could have a series of Chicago billboards with Obama, Ditka, Jordan, and Ryno, along with Philly billboards featuring Jaworski and Dr. J., New Orleans billboards with Drew Brees, etc., then I'd be on board with no reservations at all.

Posted by: rob vischer | Mar 31, 2011 6:57:13 PM

Whether or not the billboard is in itself racial, it does not exist in a vacuum, and the context of the group that created is enough to male it racially troubling.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 31, 2011 6:58:41 PM

"though I realize that nuance is not the billboard's primary aim."

Isn't part of the problem that the add is just dumb, too? Why not, "every 21 minutes, another possible serial killer is aborted" or "every 21 minutes, a homicidal maniac is aborted" or "every 21 minutes someone who might have killed your wife in a drunk driving accident is aborted"? Those are just as (or maybe even more) plausible. Whatever else you may think of the billboard, it's main problem is that its "message" is only a strong one if you are a bit simple. (There might be good reasons to be against abortion- I don't think there are, but there might be- but this isn't one of them. This is a stupid reason.)

Posted by: Matt | Mar 31, 2011 8:08:10 PM

Rob, you write: "if ... we could have a series of Chicago billboards with Obama, Ditka, Jordan, and Ryno, along with Philly billboards featuring Jaworski and Dr. J., New Orleans billboards with Drew Brees, etc., then I'd be on board with no reservations at all."

Of course we *could*. I gather you saying that if we *did* the billboard would cause you no consternation (no consternation along racial lines, I guess).

If there were a series of such billboards, I would have no consternation along racial lines, either, but I would still have a bit of a reservation at the force of the argument: it's not the most forceful argument, not the argument that I'd like (I'd like the argument to be "all are worthy, period" and not "we're losing leaders").

But if we do *not* have a series of such billboards in fact, that to me does not change the non-offensive nature of this communication along racial lines.

Yes, the president is taken to be black by and large. Yes, the billboard is up in a black neighborhood. So? It still communicates the same type of message, to me, as a Ditka or Brees billboard one could or would: namely, getting some specific group (here, black Chicagoans who identify the president as an especially compelling leader they relate to due to racial identity and hometown ties) to get the message: don't kill babies, or we may lose a leader that you really like.

Posted by: DFoley | Mar 31, 2011 8:13:19 PM

The billboard is obviously meant to covey a racial message, and I for one think that under the circumstances that's okay. The circumstances are the a nazi -- Elisabeth Sanger -- and the organization she built set out to promote abortion in the black community, and they have been shockingly successful. There is considerable noise in the data but it is clear that a very much higher proportion of black babies -- by which I mean babies of women who self-report as black -- than white babies are aborted. Ms Sanger left no doubt that that was one of the most important functions of abortion on demand in her opinion.

Nothing has done more to destroy the social cohesion of the ghetto and thus to keep the occupants down and on their knees. At this point in time, I think that simply imposing a ban on abortion would not by itself help them much, but it is an integral part of a broader program.

One thing that Ms Sanger doesn't seem to have anticipated is the collapse of marriage and fecundity in the "white community." Now both the white and black populations are shrinking, only partially offset by a mini-surge in mixed-race children like Barack. We all need help, and for white folks abortion is only a comparatively minor part of the sociological problem. We all need help.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Mar 31, 2011 9:25:59 PM

Joel Clarke Gibbons:

You say: "Now both the white and black populations are shrinking, only partially offset by a mini-surge in mixed-race children like Barack."

However, according to the Census Bureau, the black population is growing in terms of percentage of total population and in absolute numbers. Here are the projections (in millions) for the black population for the next forty years. These figures do not include people of mixed race.

2010 39,909
2015 42,137
2020 44,389
2025 46,594
2030 48,728
2035 50,810
2040 52,868
2045 54,911
2050 56,944

You say: "Nothing has done more to destroy the social cohesion of the ghetto and thus to keep the occupants down and on their knees."

Are you saying nothing has done more than abortion to destroy etc., etc.? If so, please explain, because it is not at all obvious what you could possibly mean.

You say: "There is considerable noise in the data but it is clear that a very much higher proportion of black babies -- by which I mean babies of women who self-report as black -- than white babies are aborted."

I don't know what you mean by noise in the data. What is quite clear is that black women have a much higher rate of unplanned pregnancies than white women. There is a discussion of this over on First Things, and I posted the following there earlier today.

• White women have 35 unintended pregnancies per thousand women and 11 abortions per 1000 women.

• Hispanic women have 78 unintended pregnancies per 1000 women and 28 abortions per thousand women.

• Black women have 98 unintended pregnancies per 1000 women and 50 abortions per 1000 women.

When the rate of unintended pregnancies is 180% (2.8 times) higher in one group (black women) than in another group (white women), it should be no surprise that that group has a much higher abortion rate.

Finally, would you care to explain who "Elisabeth Sanger" is? If you mean MARGARET Sanger, she promoted contraception, but she opposed abortion.

Posted by: David Nickol | Mar 31, 2011 10:38:54 PM

David, the claim that Margaret Sanger "opposed abortion" needs to expanded. It is true that she sometimes presented, as an argument for increased access to contraception, contraception as a safe alternative to abortion, which (as she noted) was gravely dangerous. There is no reason to believe, though, that she had any moral objection to abortion, and certainly no basis for thinking that she had any objections to policies aimed at reducing the number of low-income, immigrant, and African-American children.

Rob, what is "misleading" about the suggestion that African-American children are specifically vulnerable (for, as you say, a complicated nexus of reasons) to abortion?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 1, 2011 8:42:45 AM

As I said, I agree that the racial issues in abortion are risky territory, but we should also keep in mind that such sensitivity also means that this is one of the many cases in which one can face charges of insensitivity, or outright racism, no matter what path is taken.

For example, some suggested billboards with Mike Ditka or other "white heroes we might have lost." I can easily see a world in which the group does not have enough money for 10 billboards at once, and plans to rotate them one at a time. And to avoid charges of injecting race, the Obama one is slated to be 4th or 5th, after the track record is set.

After the 2d white guy goes up, the group is attacked for racism, because they only want to save white lives. "How could you possibly overlook the obvious example of our national leader, who so plainly represents great success and also represents a life situation (teen mother, etc.) vulnerable to abortion . . ." Accusers don't believe the protestations that he was coming soon, etc.

We see that all the time in law enforcement debates, based on the sad reality that black-on-black crime, in black neighborhoods, is the prevalent type in many cities. So if the city polices the area heavily, it's racist, because black defendants are at issue. And when the city backs off, it's racist, because it's abandoning black victims of crime.

So that means playing with fire, and trying to do it as safely as possible, or just ignoring an elephant in the room, which often happens, too.

Posted by: joe reader | Apr 1, 2011 9:51:32 AM

Rick, you ask Rob what is "misleading" about saying black kids are specifically vulnerable to abortion. I didn't see where Rob said saying that would be misleading. He said the billboard is on "shaky and disturbing ground" if it implies the president was more vulnerable to abortion solely because he was black.

I don't see what is "shaky and disturbing" about noting the correlation of abortion to a certain demographic cohort or in a certain locale in order to heighten awareness among that particular demographic or in that locale.

If a billboard said "black people kill more babies *because* the decision-maker is black and black people are immoral" -- that's beyond the pale, is false, has no rationality behind it. I'm guessing that's what Rob is saying when he said it would be "disturbing" to say a kid might be aborted "solely" b/c the kid is black. That's not what this billboard or the NYC billboard did, at all, in my opinion.

A billboard that says, in effect, "Hey State X, let's not lead the country in [bad statistic: obesity, abortion, whatever]" placed in that state is not a slander against the folks in that state. In fact, it shows a belief that the folks of that state have the capacity to not be last.

I think Joe Reader is astute in his comment: we might be ignoring the elephant in the room out of fear of being insensitive. I see Rob's hand-wringing to be a bit of that.

Posted by: DFoley | Apr 1, 2011 11:06:07 AM

Our country’s high abortion rate is driven by a complex mix of permissive laws, cultural acceptance, persistent poverty, racial injustice, lack of healthcare for poor women, family breakdown, male unemployment, and the list goes one. Fortunately, we have a perspective offered by Catholic social teaching that sees all of these as deeply interrelated injustices that deserve our coordinated response. Unfortunately, our political leaders, and way too often their Catholic apologists, would much rather focus on particular ones while ignoring others.

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Apr 1, 2011 11:39:13 AM

I think it's misleading (or at least incomplete) to suggest that a baby is more vulnerable to abortion *solely* because he is black. The scandal of racial disparity in abortion rates is -- I'm speculating here -- primarily a scandal of socioeconomic inequality (which is itself scandalous for reasons beyond the abortion context).

Posted by: rob vischer | Apr 1, 2011 1:23:36 PM

Rob, I think the scandal is a bit more scandalous than even that. My impression is that, even today, the "abortion is a solution to poor people, or other people I don't like, having too many children" view is not absent from conversations among otherwise respectable people, and so abortion rights are supported, and funding for abortion supporter, by some of these people, *with an eye toward* facilitating a situation in which "those people" have fewer children.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 1, 2011 2:38:50 PM

Suppose leaders from the black community, including pro-life leaders, were to come to some purely nonideological, nonpartisan representatives of the Catholic Church and say, "We want your advice regarding how to deal with abortion and other sexual and reproductive issues in our community." What would truly nonpolitical Catholic advice be? I don't think it would be, "You need to have a campaign to tell your people that there is a genocidal plot to wipe them out through abortion." I don't think it would be to have a campaign to get out the message that unborn black babies are "at risk." I don't think it would be that people have abortions because a Planned Parenthood clinic is located nearby.

It seems to me there is a subtext of conservative/Republican/pro-life versus liberal/Democrat/pro-choice animosity in a discussion like this, and it goes something like this: You liberals/Democrats/pro-choicers claim to care about black people, and your candidates get the vast majority of their votes, but you are really implicated in a racially motivated plot to exterminate them. You claim we don't care about black people, but now WE are accusing YOU of not caring about black people. If you really cared about black people, you wouldn't be pro-choice.

With 70% of black children being born out of wedlock, 69% of black pregnancies being unplanned, and the abortion rate among black women almost 5 times higher than for white women, however much you may loath Planned Parenthood, it is not the problem. If an absolute ban on abortion were imposed in the United States, these problems in the black community would not go away. The legal availability of abortion may have exacerbated the problems, but the problems in the black community have roots that go back long before 1972. This is an extremely complex social issue, laying the blame solely on Planned Parenthood or Roe v Wade (or liberals/Democrats/pro-choicers) is not going to get us anywhere.

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 1, 2011 2:44:02 PM


You say: "The scandal of racial disparity in abortion rates is -- I'm speculating here -- primarily a scandal of socioeconomic inequality (which is itself scandalous for reasons beyond the abortion context)."

However, the Guttmacher Institute says:

The abortion rates among women in minority communities have followed the overall downward trend over the three decades of legal abortion. At the same time, however, black women consistently have had the highest abortion rates, followed by Hispanic women (see chart). This holds true even when controlling for income: At every income level, black women have higher abortion rates than whites or Hispanics, except for women below the poverty line, where Hispanic women have slightly higher rates than black women.

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 1, 2011 2:50:28 PM

Thanks for alerting me to that, David. So how do we speak about the non-economic racial dimension to abortion in a way that sheds more light than heat? Or, especially as a white male, is it just best not to speak of it?

Posted by: rob vischer | Apr 1, 2011 3:10:09 PM


You say: "My impression is that, even today, the 'abortion is a solution to poor people, or other people I don't like, having too many children' view is not absent from conversations among otherwise respectable people . . . ."

There may be some truth to this, but if the "undesirables" WANT to limit the number of children they have, it is not a genocidal plot to support their right to abortion. I don't pretend to be an expert on Margaret Sanger, but it is my impression her attitude was that if women were educated about contraception, the "undesirables" would control their own numbers BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO. It is not the most noble sentiment in the world, I suppose, but it is far removed from genocide.

And by the way, I think the days of people being considered "undesirables" purely because of race are pretty much past. Very few people nowadays would be freaked if Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Beyonce, or Audra McDonald moved into their neighborhood. It did not used to be the case. The most famous and distinguished black people could not stay at white hotels or move into white neighborhoods. I do not think many people at all today look upon any and all black people as "undesirables," nor do they look on poor people as "undesirables."

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 1, 2011 3:19:26 PM

David, I see what you mean about the subtext of conservative/prolife accusation here, and that's why I think it's an area to tread lightly and charitably, but it's not a reason all conservatives, all pro-lifers (including those who are liberal on most or all other issues), or all white men should avoid the topic.

The accusatory mode, to the extent it exists, is largely a reaction to being called racist every day on every other issue. It's not excusable, but understandable, to eventually shout back with "gheesh, you're the ones killing the people you claim to love more than us."

Separately, the strongest version of the claim -- that WASPs drop clinics in poor black neighborhoods so "those people" have fewer babies -- was once trumpeted by Jesse Jackson and other black activists as an accusation against their liberal "allies." He's changed his tune, and those who have picked up the banner today may have different perspectives, but that history is telling.

Posted by: joe reader | Apr 1, 2011 3:21:15 PM


Talking about race is often problematical. The one thing I can say for sure is that those who are charging that abortion is a genocidal plot or are trying to tie being pro-choice to being racist—and I include Life Always and their billboard campaign—are making the discussion even more difficult.

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 1, 2011 3:33:11 PM

This important topic has manifested itself even on the Princeton campus, at the Divinity School, where some faculty and students organized an impromptu session in response to a flurry of posters posted by Princeton Seminarians for Life.

The topic of the posters was the racial bias of abortion -- the extremely high rate of abortion among black mothers -- and the deeply hurt feelings of some black members of the school faculty. They were hurt it seems by the fact that anyone would be so insensitive to them as to publicize the high rate of abortion.

This episode is the subject of a report published by the National Association of Scholars, at http://www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?doctype_code=Article&doc_id=1885. The reporter is not shall we say entirely sympathetic to the Princeton faculty in this matter, and the shades of Maoism present among the proceedings are duly noted, and absolutely hilarious. Of particuplar interest however for the present discussion is a quotation of Margaret Sanger. I quote from the report:

"The other item posted in January [on one of the offending posters] was a 12-page newsletter-style brochure, “Did You Know?” On one page there is a picture, embedded in an article titled 'Reproductive Racism,' of a noose encircling a 1939 quote by Margaret Sanger: 'We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.' At the end of the brochure is a cartoon panel depicting a slave woman on an auction block. Somewhere in the crowd, someone says, 'I agree, it’s wrong dear, but we mustn’t inflict our morality on others.'" [I assume this last quote came from an attendee at this session.]

The central proposition of the panelists at the session was that opposing abortion on demand is racist because it might tend to make black mothers feel especially guilty. Why making sinners feel guilty and why proclaiming the need to repent and reform are so un-Christian is something that will perhaps be dealt with more fully in future conferences.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Apr 4, 2011 1:19:56 PM