A bout a decade ago, the DeMoss Foundation commissioned the “Life. What a Beautiful Choice” advertising campaign. The commercial spots themselves were deliberately uncontroversial, going for gorgeous Reagan-era images of happy kids and unharried parents rather than the more familiar anti-choice portrait of gored nine-month “fetuses.” They associated joy, family and fulfillment with the antiabortion position. The word “abortion” was never uttered; the American “value” of life was. They ran in heavy rotation on big networks like CBS and ABC, not to mention CNN and scads of local affiliates.
Feel-good images aside, the ads had a calculated political purpose. They were lobbed at the kind of semiconservative areas that could go anti-choice with a little nudge–like Arizona in 1992, during a ballot initiative campaign that aimed to outlaw abortion. It’s impossible to gauge the precise impact, but the “Life. What A Beautiful Choice” ads reflected and supported a surge in grassroots anti-choice activism, from the Lambs of Christ 1991 siege of Fargo, North Dakota, to Operation Rescue’s 1991 Summer of Mercy in Wichita, Kansas.
The pro-choice movement didn’t have anything like that–until 1999, that is, when a coalition called the Pro-choice Public Education Project (PEP) hired the prizewinning New York agency DeVito/Verdi to design a series of ads illustrating the American “value” of choice. PEP is a consortium of more than fifty women’s rights organizations, with a steering committee that includes NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the Ms. Foundation. If you live in New York City, you can’t have missed its first set of ads–posters consisting of a black and white image with red type, prominently displayed in subways and on buses throughout the city. (DeVito/Verdi got the pro-choice artist Barbara Kruger’s permission to imitate her style.) The ads illustrate the sexism and apathy behind the erosion of abortion rights. For example, “77 percent of anti-abortion leaders are men,” reads one poster, featuring a photo of dour old white patriarchs. “100 percent of them will never be pregnant.” Another, in which a tattooed and pierced 20something gazes up at the camera, asks provocatively, “You think you can do what you want with your body? Think again.” A new series of subway posters just about to be launched contains images that vividly recall the back alley.
These campaigns are one response to what could be described as the pro-choice movement’s growing PR problem: The number of young people who say they support abortion rights has declined every year except one since 1990, according to a well-regarded annual UCLA study of incoming freshmen. There are more pro-choice than anti-choice Americans, yet many of the people who support abortion rights don’t appear to feel the need to fight to insure those rights. For example, nearly two-thirds of the respondents to a Lake Snell Perry survey conducted in late 1999 strongly favored Roe v. Wade. Yet when asked if they’d be “worried if the next President tried to overturn Roe v. Wade through Supreme Court appointments,” less than half said they’d lose any sleep over it. Chads and butterfly ballots aside, that carefree attitude was confirmed in the last election. One of Bush’s first acts as President was to reactivate the global gag rule, cutting off US aid to overseas clinics that provide information on abortion. And, the National Abortion Rights Action League reports, more than 435 restrictions on abortion were brought before state legislators in 2000.