A billboard about abortion was supposed to go up near Charlotte. Why was it pulled?

·4 min read
Alex Slitz/alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

There are 161,000 vehicles traveling between North and South Carolina on I-77 every day. Every day, commuters pass countless billboards between Charlotte and Rock Hill, advertising everything from lagers to legal services to Lowe’s Foods. These billboards get viewed close to 1.26 million times a week on average.

There are also billboards about Christianity, like the anti-abortion advertisements that ask onlookers to “choose life.” One, put up in 2021 by the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., says “Choose Life: Pray Pray Pray.” Brooke Adams, the president of the Reproductive Rights Coalition, notes that there are far fewer pro-abortion advertisements to counteract the negative. So when her group was approached to sponsor a pro-abortion billboard on the South Carolina interstate, 1.5 miles from the border, they decided to go for it.

The billboard, a simple blue background with white lettering that says “Abortion is legal in North Carolina,” was supposed to go up the week of July 25. But organizer Marcie Shealy says she received a call the Friday before from the sales representative she’d worked with at Adams Outdoor Advertising, saying the general manager was pulling the billboard, out of fear of litigation. Shealy says they expressed concern over legal issues in South Carolina, specifically. Adams Outdoor Advertising did not return requests for comment.

“He said it was strictly a business decision,” Shealy told me via email. “He was ‘not taking sides.’”

In July, state senators in Columbia introduced a bill that would ban providing information to people about abortion by “any form of communication.” While the bill has been in committee for more than a month, there has been other legislation at the federal level to protect the right of pregnant people to travel across state lines for abortions. All but three GOP representatives voted against it in the House. The billboard was to be a reminder for South Carolina residents that just a few minutes over state lines, they could still access the care they’d been able to get for decades.

The North and South Carolina border sometimes feels abstract, but the abortion issue — even simply saying what is legal, and where — brings the divide into crisp, unwavering focus. In one state, abortion has barriers, but it is legal. In another, it’s banned at six weeks.

This billboard also highlights a truth about the current state of abortion rights: the anti-abortion movement has spent nearly 60 years organizing and building marketing around one specific goal. Now that the right to an abortion has been overturned by the courts, abortion rights activists are on the defense.

“For 59 years there was no need for pro-choice forces to put up billboards announcing reproductive rights under our Constitution,” Adams said.

The first abortion-related billboards were, in fact, advertising abortion services across state lines, like a 1971 advertisement that appeared in Pennsylvania, near the New York border. Anti-abortion billboards grew in popularity in the mid-1970s, after the Roe v. Wade decision. Now, the tides are changing once again.

Of course, Adams Outdoor Advertising is under no obligation to follow the guidelines of the First Amendment; it is a privately-owned company. This episode does, however, show that the chilling effect is taking hold: instead of taking risk and putting out a billboard in the first place, even with the explicit agreement that it can come down if deemed “too controversial,” the company took itself out of the conversation altogether.

Shealy and the rest of the donors eventually came to partner with Lamar Advertising Company, the largest billboard advertising group in the country. The new billboard will go up at the end of August. Hal Kilshaw, the VP of Governmental Relations at Lamar, says the company has had a lot of abortion-related billboards come under contract since the Dobbs decision, from both sides of the argument. (The “Choose Life” billboard from the Diocese of Biloxi was one.)

Despite a happy ending, the rigamaroll that the Reproductive Rights Coalition had to go through to simply get a billboard up with a factually accurate headline is frustrating at best. At worst, it’s proof that the bills being filed and actions being taken by the anti-abortion side are discouraging some from speaking out in support of health care — even when it could save lives.