For it or against it, abortion is not a billboard issue


There seems to be nowhere you can complain about the ‘in-your-face’ anti-abortion posters

STRANGE THINGS happen when the subject of abortion is brought into the public arena. Last week at the House of Representatives in the state of Michigan Democrat Lisa Brown was banned from speaking on the floor for using the word “vagina” during a debate on abortion. As in: “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina. But no means no.” Also last week the local authorities in the Chinese province of Shaanxi apologised for forcing a 27-year-old woman into having a late abortion. Chinese activists say the reason for this outrageous act was the fact that Feng Jianmei and her husband could not afford to pay the fine for having a second child. Her case was publicised on the web.

You don’t have to have been a member of the Women’s Right To Choose Group back in the 1980s, as I was, to see abortion campaigns gearing up. But it helps. If you haven’t seen the new anti-abortion posters here, don’t worry, over the next six weeks they are coming to a billboard, a bus, a tram, or a train station near you. Especially if you are in Fine Gael, or Enda Kenny himself. The text used in the campaign, rendered in black, white and red, is simple: “Abortion Tears Her Life Apart” on the top of the poster, and “There is Always a Better Answer”, accompanied by the Youth Defence logo in the bottom right-hand corner.

This much stays the same. The photographs are either a view of a young woman’s face, with the photograph ostensibly torn in two; or of a foetus in the womb – there are two versions of this, with both photographs torn in two. And that is it, really. People who know about these things – not me – have said that the style is reminiscent of the work of collage artist Barbara Kruger, whose work featured black and white photographs and red lettering that spelled out slogans like “Your Body is a Battleground”. Those were the days.

“Here we go,” said a friend of mine who has two children, and, like many parents, spends a lot of time driving them around the place. “There’s no such thing as the watershed now. It’s child abuse all morning on the radio.” She doesn’t want to have to explain abortion to her children, who are both under eight and very good at reading, thank you. Although she would die before she said so, their mother is a good Christian woman, a Mass-going Catholic – yes, we are trying to slap a preservation order on her, but she just won’t sit still.

“Abortion is not a billboard issue,” she says. “Whether you’re for it or against it, essentially it’s very difficult, very delicate. It’s totally private and here it’s totally in your face.” You cannot, as far as I can make out, complain about the Youth Defence/Life Institute posters should you wish to do so. The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland’s call-waiting system plays Love Me Tender on a little xylophone but, in fairness, you don’t have to listen to it for very long. “It’s not within our jurisdiction,” says chief executive Frank Goodman. “There’s an exclusion in our code.” This is section 1.5, subsection F, which excludes advertising pertaining to matters political, religious, social or of public interest or concern. Dublin City Council thought you might complain to the standards authority. The Department of Health said it had no role in the placing of these advertisements. Not one person I spoke to had seen the posters, although I had seen four without really trying.

“There are 220 Luas ads up as well now,” said Life’s Niamh Ui Bhriain. There will be 200 advertisements on Dublin buses for four weeks, from June 25th. There will be screens at Heuston Station in Dublin, showing a moving unborn baby. There will be advertisements on buses in Limerick and Cork. “Sounds like they’re spending big cash, spending proper money,” says an advertising person wistfully. His media buyer wouldn’t give an estimate of how much the campaign cost. About €250,000 was one guess and “well north of €100,000” was another. In any event, he says, there would be the list price, and then there would be the negotiated price.

Ui Bhriain cheerfully admits: “We need to raise a hundred and fifty grand.” She also says: “We’re getting really good value.” They’re printing a minimum of half a million leaflets. When pressed on the difference between the list price and the negotiated price she gave as an example the list price for an advertisement placed in the national media two years ago, which was, she said, effectively halved. None of the money for this campaign came from abroad, she says. “That’s all we ever get asked.”

Ui Bhriain works for Life as a volunteer. She too has an eight-year-old child. “I just say abortion is something that harms babies and that we’re trying to offer a better way.” The posters are backed up by what she calls “a ground campaign. Youth Defence are starting their roadshow next Monday.” Its twin aims are: “To create awareness and to motivate the pro-life majority to phone their Fine Gael TDs.” Around the country contact details of local TDs will be supplied. “And then we’re actually having a last push round the Taoiseach’s constituency.”

She does not agree that the abortion argument has effectively been won by the other side; she thinks the debate is entirely unbalanced. It is hard to disagree with her view of our public representatives. “They’re politicians, they’ll go with public opinion.”

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