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Abortion group uses billboards to welcome those coming north to Illinois for the procedure

Billboard says abortion is okay
Kristen and Lindsey Archer, ARCHd

Shout Your Abortion
The group Shout Your Abortion has installed billboards supporting women coming to Illinois for abortion.

About five months before Cassie and Carter Smith’s wedding, Cassie got pregnant.The St. Louis-area couple had agreed they did not want children, and scheduled an abortion.

The staff at the Granite City clinic warned the Smiths, who grew up in Springfield but now live in Washington state, to expect anti-abortion pickets. Still, Cassie says she was unprepared for the emotions the protesters elicited when she heard things like “make better choices” and that God loved their baby.

‘I just really felt like, they aren't there to help anybody, they are just there to hurt people's feelings. It just felt so invasive and inappropriate, ‘’ she said.

Amelia Bonow had a markedly different experience when she had an abortion two years earlier in 2014. She said, ”I think that a huge part of why I was able to have a positive experience with abortion is that I simply …wasn't really exposed to that kind of vitriolic, judgmental anti-abortion rhetoric. ”

Today, Bonow leads a national organization called Shout Your Abortion, which works to destigmatize the procedure.

The group aims to offer support to thousands of people coming to Illinois for an abortion from states that enacted tight restrictions since last year. The group has installed six billboards on I-55. Near Memphis, the first one reads: “God's Plan Includes Abortion.”

Further north in Missouri, near Portageville, Miner and Sikeston, the messages say “Abortion is Okay, You Know What's Right for You” and “Abortion is Normal, You are Loved.”

Shout Your Abortion public relations material says abortion opponents have “lined I-55 with negative, guilt-based billboards shaming abortion seekers from the south headed to Illinois.”

Bonow says, “It just hurts my heart to think about all the folks that are having to encounter that in order to access abortion care. And…we're all quite used to being inundated with shame-based, judgmental, harassing anti-abortion messages, whether that's on billboards or protesters screaming outside of a clinic or messaging coming from the faith community.”

Tens of thousands of abortion seekers have come to Illinois – which has expanded abortion protections – from states where it is now illegal.

In anticipation of the Dobbs decision ending the Roe V Wade era and a growing number of abortion restrictions in neighboring states, CHOICES Center for Reproductive Health opened a Carbondale clinic in southern Illinois. It has operated a Memphis clinic since 1974 that can no longer perform abortions but offers other health care services like birthing and reproductive and gender-affirming care.

Since the Carbondale clinic opened in the fall of 2022, CHOICES has seen just under 3,000 patients. It says 80% are from Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Jennifer Pepper is the CEO of CHOICES.

She said, “I'm so excited to see some really positive messages go up because it is …just an onslaught of these very stigmatizing billboards that are meant to shame folks that are seeking health care. So we're very excited that Shout Your Abortion has chosen that particular piece of highway to help affirm people's decisions in accessing abortion care.”

“That’s why we chose Carbondale. It was three hours from Memphis, which is three hours too far, admittedly. But … women have always had to travel for this health care and it's a tragedy. People should not have to leave their communities to access basic health care,” she said.

But the Illinois Right to Life leader sees the situation in a different light. Mary Kate Zander said she is not surprised to see the new billboards along I-55.

“It's obviously a high-traffic area, particularly if you are coming up from the south. And we know that there are women being sent from states off to Illinois to receive their abortions. None of this is a surprise,’’ Zander said. “And my thoughts are simply that Shout Your Abortion will always be in vain because it will never be normal to take the life of your child.’’

Zander said Illinois Right to Life doesn’t have billboards currently along the highway – but a group called Pro-life Across America does. The director, Mary Ann Kuharski, says she could not determine what the signs say now because an effort is ongoing to change them. Some of those for a recent campaign said “Every Life Counts -- I could feel pain at 12 weeks’ and “Protect the Babies – heart beat at 18 days from conception.”

While some motorists likely pass by the dueling billboards without giving much thought, they are targeting more people traveling the route for abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group that supports the procedure, there were 18,300 abortions in Illinois from January to June this year – a nearly 70 percent increase since the same time period in 2020.

Cassie Smith, the former Springfield woman who had an abortion in 2016, and her husband Carter, said they support messages providing comfort to those who choose to end a pregnancy.

Cassie said, “To know that people are going out of their way to make people who are in a vulnerable spot feel more comfortable with their decision is just so great. I do wish that I had something like that when we were going through it.”

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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