This Ad Company Is Rejecting Crucial Billboards From Midwest Abortion Funds

Three funds are collaborating on an ad campaign to help abortion seekers navigate a minefield of post-Roe laws. At least one billboard company is getting in the way.

This Ad Company Is Rejecting Crucial Billboards From Midwest Abortion Funds

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and abortion bans swept the Midwest, Illinois has become a top destination for traveling abortion patients. The state faced a 72% increase in abortions between 2020 and 2023, with out-of-state patients accounting for 68% of the increase, per Guttmacher. As a beacon for abortion access in this part of the country, an Illinois abortion fund has joined with funds from other parts of the Midwest for a billboard campaign to let the public know they still have options to access abortion care despite new challenges—but this campaign is facing significant barriers of its own.

In the heartland, we look out for each other. Abortion funds are here for you,” reads one billboard that Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF), Hoosier Abortion Fund (HAF), and the Women’s Medical Fund (WMF) of Wisconsin submitted to Lamar Advertising as part of their multi-state campaign. But in March, the company informed the groups that their billboard was rejected, citing concerns about the legality of their work. Since August, abortion has been banned in Indiana, where HAF—a part of Indiana’s All Options reproductive justice group—operates. 

But no law prohibits pregnant people from seeking the support of abortion funds, or abortion funds from disclosing the resources they provide to help people travel out-of-state for care. Even more egregious, Lamar Advertising has run billboards from anti-abortion groups trying to dissuade people from having abortions and targeting Black women with racist messaging. Meanwhile, as those billboards run, women and pregnant people in regions disproportionately affected by abortion bans are left scrambling, trying to make sense of an ever-shifting, highly confusing legal landscape.

“We’re really seeing that the numbers of people calling us have gone down significantly since the [Indiana] ban went into effect,” Parker Dockray, executive director of All Options, told Jezebel. “People don’t know they’re allowed to call somewhere for help or leave the state. It’s heartbreaking that a lot of people out there who could use our help don’t even know. People are very confused.” Those who do call HAF seeking help need substantially more financial assistance than callers did before the ban took effect, as they’re now required to travel out-of-state, take more time off work, or seek assistance with child care.

Currently, Dockray says that All Options and HAF are referring 85% of their callers to Illinois, which is the closest state where abortion is legal. Still, legal abortion is just one part of the equation—the other is knowing abortion is legal in your state. Alicia Hurtado, movement building director of CAF, told Jezebel she’s helped at least one caller who was from Iowa (which neighbors Illinois) who initially called to try to get help making an abortion appointment, but she stopped answering within a couple of days. Finally, when the caller returned one of Hurtado’s messages, she said she would no longer need CAF’s services because she learned abortion was banned. Abortion is currently legal through about 21 weeks in Iowa; Hurtado informed the caller of this and says she was “able to redirect her, find her a new appointment, assure her that it was legal for her to get an abortion actually, in her home state.” But for Hurtado, the interaction was sobering. Across the Midwest, she says, “people are absorbing what they can, but it is a really confusing time for everyone—seeking abortion on top of having to navigate barriers and laws.”

Dockray emphasized that the billboard ad campaign is meant to “make sure people know about the resources that are available to them.” Dockray also expressed confusion with Lamar Advertising’s legal concerns with the submitted billboards, as the abortion funds involved with the campaign consulted extensively with lawyers before submitting them for consideration.

Lamar Advertising did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the abortion funds’ rejected billboards, nor the approval process for anti-abortion groups’ billboards. Of course, to Dockray and Hurtado, the company’s willingness to publish billboards against abortion but not billboards informing people of their option to seek help from an abortion fund represents a double standard that’s actively harming people across the region.

In December 2022, self-reported data from Illinois abortion providers showed the proportion of out-of-state patients they’ve served increased from 6% before the fall of Roe to one-third after. People in Midwestern states that have banned abortion need to know their options, people in Midwestern states that haven’t banned abortion need to know they can get care in their state, and abortion funds can help them navigate all of this, Dockray said. But people need to know abortion funds exist in order to turn to them. 

Abortion-related advertising has proven difficult for groups that have tried, even in ostensibly blue states like New York. In March, a billboard by the Don’t Ban Equality campaign that read “Abortion access is every business’s business” was rejected by TSX Broadway, which runs billboard ads in Times Square. Don’t Ban Equality updated the billboard to change “abortion access” to “reproductive health” and submitted it to different advertising companies offering billboards in Times Square, but all rejected it. The ad, which is co-signed by companies including Bumble, Lyft, Match Group, Warner Music Group, and Yelp, was eventually accepted by an advertising company off 54th and Broadway, north of Times Square. Fortune notes that “real estate investors, landlords and media networks that control Times Square” have “proved to be more risk-averse” than newspapers and local media that frequently accept ads like this.

Dockray and Hurtado have since been able to place their billboards with vendors in Chicago and Wisconsin, and published ads in convenience stores, via sidewalk decals, and online. But it’s disheartening that a large billboard company would reject their ads amid what both see as a crisis of confusion and misinformation that’s inevitably stopping people from getting abortion care. “Chaos and confusion and stigma are the point as much as actually banning services. The anti-abortion movement knows that by creating chaos, it’s harder for people to know what their rights are even when they have rights, or how to get the support they need,” Dockray said. By rejecting their billboards, she believes Lamar Advertising is feeding this predicament. “It’s sad to see a decline in calls, because we know it’s not that fewer people need abortion care—it’s just people don’t know where to call.”

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