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BY Tim Drake
MINNEAPOLIS — One reads “Every Baby is a Miracle.” Another reads “My Doc says my heart was beating 24 days from conception!” Another: “2,000,000 couples are waiting to adopt.”
The full-color billboards with smiling babies are everywhere, dotting Minnesota's highways and freeways. The billboards, and more than 1,800 others like them, are the work of a grassroots pro-life organization whose message is educational rather than political. It's a message Mary Ann Kuharski has been spreading with Prolife Minnesota for 12 years.
Prolife Minnesota, she says, was born primarily out of frustration. “We've seen elections come and go and still 4,400 babies die nationwide every day. That's one death every 18 seconds.”
Kuharski herself was adopted and six of her 13 children are adopted. She wondered, “What can we do to promote adoption? I think big. More than 2 million couples nationally are waiting to adopt. How can I make this so big that people will see the message? We wanted to create an aware-ness.”
She had used bus advertising previously, and so she naturally thought of billboards. “Prolife Minnesota formed in 1989 and our first billboard went up in the spring of 1990. Today, Prolife Minnesota posts more than 1,800 billboards along freeways and highways across Minnesota, 16 other states, and Ontario, Canada, each year.”
“We're not here to change the law,” says Kuharski. “We really are here to change hearts and to offer alternatives. We don't use fighting words. Our billboards are very, very tender. We never use the word abortion.”
The billboards are leased from a month up to a year. Approximately 300 are leased year-round. Each billboard features a toll-free telephone number. People calling that number are directed to crisis pregnancy counseling or post-abortion assistance.
Never say never
“Prolife Minnesota started in my dining room. We never thought we would do newspaper, TV or radio advertising,” explains Kuharski, “but people began designating their donations for other mediums. So, in about 1991 or 1992 we started doing radio and television advertising and now we do that four times a year.”
The organization operates with no full-time salaried staff and raises more than $650,000 annually from individual donors and the proceeds from the sale of Kuharski's audio-tapes and three books on parenting.
While she doesn't know how many lives are saved through their efforts, she knows that many are. “It's rare when we know,” says Kuharski. “Last year a woman had gone into an abortion clinic to have an abortion. During the ultrasound it was discovered that she was carrying twins. She decided not to go through with the abortion. She later called us to tell us that it was a Prolife Minnesota ‘save the Twins!’ billboard that played a role in her decision,” explains Kuharski.
Patrick Foley, director of the Wakota Life Care Center, tells the story of the effect of one of Kuharski's billboards: “[It] features the drawing of an unborn child in the amniotic sac. The caption reads “Fetus is Latin for Little One.” Every year I am invited to speak at a high school near that billboard. One year while delivering my presentation I used the term “fetus” and about three voices responded, ‘Yeah, that's Latin for little one.’ They had seen the billboard.”
Kuharski also trains Foley's counselors in promoting adoption. “She has a marvelous zeal and she leaves no stone unturned to witness on behalf of adoption,” says Foley.
“Prolife Minnesota blankets the Minnesota landscape with these wonderful pictures and information about the unborn and adoption. That can't help but make a difference for the hundreds of thousands of people who see them each day and those who call for help,” adds Will Cossairt, executive director of Life Care Centers, which oversees 24 Life Care Centers within the state
In the mid-1990s, KSTP, a local television station, aired a news story in which they called Prolife Minnesota “the billboard people.” The name stuck, and they've used it ever since. Now trademarked, it is a moniker that others have tried to use to their advantage.
Last April a political fund-raising group began soliciting donations by telephone and insinuated an identity with Prolife Minnesota.
Kuharski first learned of the association when in May she received a formal complaint from the Minnesota attorney general's office. “A woman had called the attorney general saying that Prolife Minnesota had woken her up with a telemarketing call and that whoever was calling said they were ‘the billboard people,’” explained Kuharski.
Kuharski, whose organization is nonpolitical and has never engaged in telephone solicitation, said the telemarketing group's false insinuation has cost her organization many donors. The confusion led to a $70,000 drop in contributions.
To protect her organization she sought a court injunction against the political group. In October, a Dakota County District Court judge ruled in favor of Prolife Minnesota and ordered the other group to stop using the trade name or any insinuation of association with Prolife Minnesota. In addition, Prolife Minnesota filed a complaint with the Minnesota secretary of state contesting the other organization's name. In the end the secretary of state ruled in Kuharski's favor.
The opposition has taken notice of the billboards as well. Last year, the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Rights mailed its supporters asking, “Are you tired of seeing all those pro-life billboards?” Kuharski says, “They are attempting to raise money for their own billboards. So far, they've only been able to afford advertising in bus stations.”
Kuharski isn't letting the challenges stop her plans. Her organization was recently renamed Prolife Across America and she is taking the local success of the billboards national. Her goal is to raise $1 million and put up 2,001 billboards nationwide in 2001. To date, billboards have already been placed in 16 states, including California, Wisconsin, Kansas, North Dakota and New York.
“Our billboards tell people that this is a unified effort and that we aren't quitting. As long as one baby is being threatened by abortion you will see our signs,” says Kuharski.