If a female in your community is experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, does she know where she can get compassionate, life-affirming help? One of the best ways to have a visible, pro-life presence in the community is through billboards that promote a culture of life message and provide information about where to get help.
Response in Boise
In the Boise, Idaho, area, a handful of mothers and I created a group and launched the Treasure Valley Pro-Life Billboard Campaign. We raised nearly $37,000 in 15 months to pay for ads on six pro-life bus stop benches for 15 months, two rotary billboards for one year, and two back-of-the-bus signs for six months.
My eldest daughter, Ella, and I were driving from Boise to our home in nearby Nampa. Just as we came over the bridge, we saw a billboard that made us feel sick to our stomachs. At first glance, the billboard was pleasant to look at. The sign had a pretty Hispanic mother being lovingly embraced by her attractive college-aged daughter. Then we saw the text: “Your mom wants to be a grandmother, just not now.” Even if I hadn’t known that Planned Parenthood’s main business is abortion and that they target minorities, we still would have been jarred by the message.
My daughter, Ella, had been my crisis pregnancy 19 years ago. That seemingly innocent billboard—“Your mom wants to be a grandmother, just not now”—conveyed an insidious message. Any unmarried woman experiencing an unplanned pregnancy fears telling her mother. She is grappling with the unknown and feelings of fear, shame, and visions of how angry and disappointed her mother is going to be. To us, Planned Parenthood billboard’s subtext was, “If you get pregnant, get an abortion, because your mother’s not ready to be a grandmother, and you don’t want to ruin your relationship.”
Their advertising underlying message was spot-on: Telling your mother that you’re unexpectedly pregnant will make her unhappy and angry. In my case, my mom was beside herself for a couple of weeks. She was angry with me, and she was also worried about how I would take care of a baby by myself—I was living two hours from my family, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What the Planned Parenthood billboard doesn’t convey to young women is that, although your mom may not be ready to be a grandmother, she will get over the shock, and she will love that baby like it’s her own. That little child will heal any fissures in your relationship. That baby is an unexpected gift that will make both women stronger. I know—because my mom and I lived it.
I sensed that God was calling me to respond to this billboard by getting pro-life billboards up in my community. For help, I looked to two well-connected and creative women, Karen Simkins, our local coordinator for 40 Days for Life, and Irene Deely, a volunteer at Boise’s Birthright. We formed our little grass-roots organization and partnered with Birthright, which has a 24-hour hotline. It was Birthright that had helped me when I discovered I was pregnant all those years ago. Birthright had done such a good job of advertising in Iowa and Minnesota that the moment that pink line showed up on the pregnancy test, I knew I had to get help, and I knew I could get that help at Birthright.
Message and image
Before our billboards went up, there wasn’t pro-life advertising in the Boise area. We wanted women in our community to know that there is life-affirming help, and we thought we could do this effectively with billboards. Our message was born out of the compassion our little group felt for the woman who is terrified because she has just discovered that she is pregnant. We wanted her to know that there is hope and help.
Stressing how important a positive message is, Kathy Potts, executive director of Jackson Right to Life, in Jackson, Michigan, told Catholic Digest, “You can’t reach them with a message if they feel you’re coming at them with a harsh, judgmental sort of tone.”
You also want a sign that will speak to women. “The other thing we’ve learned from some pro-life professional marketing people is that if you want to reach abortion-minded women, don’t use images of babies. You’ve got to concentrate on the fear and the situation they are going through right now. They’re often not interested in the baby, so that’s why our current images are just contemporary young woman with a very subtle message,” Kathy said.
With our billboards in the Boise area, while we were aware that it wasn’t always as effective to have a baby in the image, we decided to have one sign with a mother and baby because we are also trying to reach the community at large. Maybe the message “Because of him, you’ll be a stronger woman” wouldn’t reach an abortion-minded woman, but it could reach that woman who saw it before experiencing a crisis pregnancy.
Mary Ann Kuharski, the founder of Prolife Across America, has been putting up billboards since 1989. She believes that, from what she has seen from years of experience, images of adorable babies do indeed reach women. However, images of babies in utero do not because they don’t evoke any tenderness. “It’s especially difficult for men to identify with these alien-looking images,” she told Catholic Digest.
When considering images and messages, it’s crucial to remember men. The male has a lot of influence on whether the woman in his life gets an abortion or not. April Kesterson, executive director of Tulare-Kings Right to Life, in Visalia, California, says their current billboard campaign is attempting to reach men. She told Catholic Digest, “If people realize that abortion is damaging—that it has ill effects—perhaps they will choose not to have an abortion, and men will be convinced not to force their daughter, wife, or girlfriend into having one.”
Duration of campaign
Kesterson has been running pro-life billboard campaigns for over a decade. She says,
“The pro-life message has to be facing the public all the time. They have to see it enough that eventually they will have to think about it.”
She recommends hitting the public fast and hard and not having a campaign run too long. If your campaign is running for a year, then rotary billboards (billboards that move to a new location every two months) are a good way to ensure that your campaign isn’t becoming invisible.
Pro-life Across America also run their billboard campaigns for no longer than a year at a time.
How to raise money
Once you have the message, the image, and the numbers on how much your campaign will cost, the next step is to draw up a letter to send to potential donors. The letter can also be used as a springboard for opportunities to present your cause to churches and organizations. The Knights of Columbus in Nampa, Idaho, and Our Lady of the Rosary Knights of Columbus in Meridian, Idaho, were instrumental in the success of the Treasure Valley Pro-Life Billboard Campaign. The Jackson Right to Life also found support from their local Knights of Columbus. “They are just an amazing group wherever you are. You can talk to somebody in almost any of the states and find the same sentiments; we are very blessed by their help,” Potts says.
Another way to raise money is to use a website such as GoFundMe.com. This a good way to receive a lot of donations in a short amount of time. Also, if you have a local Catholic or Christian radio station, contact them to see if they would be interested in interviewing you to get the word out about your efforts.
Keep a constant presence
“What we’re attempting to do with the billboards is to change hearts and minds. We need to counteract the culture of death with a constant, consistent pro-life message that never goes away,” Kesterson explains. “At some point in time, you are going to be reaching women who are experiencing an unplanned pregnancy.”
Do billboards save lives?
Prolife Across America, which is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has more than 6,500 pro-life billboards in more than 40 states. Their hotline number, which is listed on their billboards, receives 200 to 250 calls a month. Mary Ann Kuharski can tell you fascinating story after story about how their billboards have saved lives.
Recently, a pregnant young woman in Nevada called Pro-life Across America’s hotline. She and her boyfriend were abortion-minded. “I answered the hotline, and she said in real quiet voice, ‘What exactly do you do?’
“I told her, ‘We are a link. If someone needs confidential counseling, is pregnant, needs a pregnancy test, an ultrasound, or wants information on adoption, is contemplating an abortion, or needs post-abortive counseling, we will put them in contact with the closest agency.’
“Then the young women said, ‘You’re not going to believe this; we ran out of gas literally under your billboard. My boyfriend went to get gas and I’m sitting here looking at your ad. I decided I was just going to call the number and see what you do. I just can’t believe this is happening.’”
Her baby’s life was saved that day because of the billboard. Kuharski was able to help her find pregnancy services in the Nevada area. The amazing thing is that Prolife Across America had only one sign in Nevada, and this couple happened to run out of gas right near it.
Kuharski tells another story about a trucker who called the hotline one day.
“Lady, is that your billboard on I-35?” she heard a man say into the phone.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “What does it say?”
“It says the kid has a beating heart at 18 days. I just saw it. My girlfriend’s pregnant, and I just told her to get rid of it, take care of it.”
Kuharski replied, “Now that you know that your baby already has a beating heart and is alive, you’re not going to tell her to do that. I’ll bet you’re going to help her and help the baby.”
There was a long pause, and she could hear the wheels on his rig spinning. The trucker said with resolution, “Yes, I am!”
How to start your own campaign
If you would like to start a pro-life billboard campaign in your community, or if you would like to help with our efforts, please contact Boise Birthright 208-342-1898 and check us out on Facebook.