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Billboards supporting women seeking abortions are popping up along I-55 heading north

Memphis hairstylist and abortion rights advocate Queen visits a new billboard on Interstate 55 in Arkansas, placed by the group Shout Your Abortion. She says messages such as "God's Plan Includes Abortion" give "courage" and "strength" to those traveling on this road to the closest abortion clinic for thousands of southern women.
Christopher Blank
/
WKNO
Memphis hairstylist and abortion rights advocate Queen visits a new billboard on Interstate 55 in Arkansas, placed by the group Shout Your Abortion. She says messages such as "God's Plan Includes Abortion" give "courage" and "strength" to those traveling on this road to the closest abortion clinic for thousands of southern women.

"People make mistakes," says Queen, a Memphis hairstylist whose clients often confide those mistakes in her.

She's earned their trust, she says, because she's forthcoming about her own mistakes. That includes an accidental pregnancy decades ago at age 18, which she terminated when abortion was legal in all 50 states.

Today, Queen says distance has become the biggest hurdle to getting the procedure in the southern United States. Hundreds of miles and multiple state lines can separate women from providers, which is why she's an enthusiastic proponent of a new abortion-rights billboard campaign along one stretch of rural Interstate 55 running across eastern Arkansas from Memphis, Tenn., to Southern Illinois.

"Yes!" she shouts when she sees the first billboard, which reads "GOD'S PLAN INCLUDES ABORTION."

"It does," she says. "I agree."

The new billboard is one of six paid for by Seattle-based Shout Your Abortion. Its founder Amelia Bonow says this route in particular — leading to the only legal providers within hundreds of miles — needed a counterpoint to the billboards opposing abortion.

"I-55 is just covered with these hateful, judgmental, shaming, intentionally traumatizing anti-abortion billboards," says Bonow of why the group focused on this segment of highway.

Some anti-abortion rights billboards invoke the Bible. Others, like those placed by Minnesota-based Pro-Life Across America, have pictures of smiling babies and a phone number.

The group's founder, Mary Ann Kuharski, said their billboards generate about 500 calls per month, with a slight increase since the Dobbs Supreme Court decision.

"We don't argue," she says. "We don't use harsh words. We never even use the word abortion on our billboards."

The hotline refers women to organizations that provide prenatal screenings and counseling, often called "crisis pregnancy centers." But for tens of thousands of women who opt for abortion, the real crisis is getting around state laws that place it out of reach.

"That's what these laws do," contends Bonow. "They don't actually stop people from having abortions, but they make people struggle in order to have abortions."

Other Shout Your Abortion billboards say "Abortion is okay," and "Abortion is normal, you are loved."

Some former abortion providers now offer what are called "navigational services." Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, says for some young clients living in poverty it's their first time ever traveling beyond the city limits.

"We're handing out gas cards," she says. "We're making hotel arrangements. We're buying plane tickets, train tickets, bus tickets, whatever works best for the individual. We're meeting them where they are."

The destination for almost everyone is the same: Carbondale, Illinois. There are two clinics in this small college town near the southern border. In the first six months of 2023, Illinois saw a 70 percent increase in abortions.

Jennifer Pepper, executive director of Memphis-based CHOICES, a reproductive health center that moved its abortion services here a year ago, says the vast majority of its clients come from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

"The physician performs the procedure for them, which takes anywhere from five to 15 minutes," Pepper says. "The procedure is very quick."

This may be the biggest surprise after all the planning and hours of driving. It's fast. Illinois got rid of measures other states previously used to discourage abortions. There's no waiting period, no parental permissions for minors, no questions about how to dispose of a fetus.

Pepper says the billboards on the last leg of the trip matter to those on what can be an emotionally difficult journey.

"We'd heard from patients that it felt really good to see an affirming message," she says.

Queen says many young people in the inner city who choose to have an abortion face financial hardships and social stigma.

The billboards, she says, are "going to give some of them more courage, more strength, more belief. It's going to ease their souls. That's what it's going to do."

Copyright 2023 WKNO

Christopher Blank
A native "Florida Man," Christopher started in this business as a copy clerk at the renowned St. Petersburg Times before persuading editors to let him write. He moved to Memphis in 2001 to cover arts and entertainment at the Commercial Appeal. Since then, he has contributed to nearly every publication in Shelby County, writing features on everything from the Civil War to Civil Rights. Also, Elvis... a lot of Elvis.