PHILADELPHIA — In a move reminiscent of the situation faced by the American Life League in New York's subway system last year, the city of Philadelphia has rejected a series of pro-life bus shelter ads. The series was created by the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The rejection is all the more unexpected because the ads are deliberately soft-edged, asking only that viewers consider whether the current lack of legal restrictions on abortion might be a mistake.

The U.S. bishops had hoped to run them in at least 34 different bus shelters in the city. Though the ads are running on Philadelphia commuter trains, the city has rejected the bus shelter ads, saying that they violate the city's policy regarding public advertisements.

The ads are part of the bishops’ $250,000 Second Look Project campaign, launched in Philadelphia Sept. 4. The campaign consists of two different transit ads, three 60-second radio spots and a Web site.

The ads feature no religious content and present factual information about abortion. One, for example, shows a young woman with a nine-month calendar lightly superimposed over her torso. The text reads: “Nine months. The amount of time the Supreme Court says it's legal to have an abortion. Abortion. Have we gone too far?”

The bishops were first notified Aug. 28 that the bus shelter ads were being rejected. “We pursued the city, asking them on what basis the ads were being rejected and whether they might reconsider,” said Cathy Cleaver, spokeswoman for the pro-life secretariat. “We received no final response from the city until Sept. 25 when they informed us by letter, stating that ‘the bus shelter program is a commercial program whose sole purpose is to raise revenue. The program is limited to commercial advertisements and a small number of innocuous public service announcements.’”

The Secret Protocol

Luz Cardena, communications director with the city of Philadelphia, referred to a “protocol” for advertisements. “I don't think the city was rejecting the ads, but only specific kinds of ads,” she said. “There is a protocol for what kind of ads the city can get involved with.”

However, despite four attempts, no one was willing to share the specifics of that protocol with the Register. Deputy City Solicitor Marcia Berman refused to explain the rationale for the decision, provide a copy of city policy, or answer questions about what kinds of ads the city has allowed in the past. “We don't really discuss the basis for our legal decisions in the press,” she said.

Others wonder if a pro-abortion bias might be at work. “If they've ever run any kind of advertisements for contraceptive services, Planned Parenthood, environmental causes or Greenpeace, there should be no reason that they should be able to reject these ads,” commented Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League.

‘The campaign is designed to speak to people who consider themselves pro-choice.’

— Cathy Cleaver

A deputy mayor reportedly told Cleaver some weeks ago that the city had approved a series of Republicans for Choice ads last year. More recently, however, the city denied running those ads.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania said it has not run bus shelter advertising in the past. “We're a women's health organization. We do patient services marketing, not advocacy work. These ads are trying to sway the public's opinion on something. It's not our business to advertise in that way,” said Margot Callahan, media coordinator with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Marketing Adventures, a media placement agency in Redondo Beach, Calif., that has placed fashion advertisements in Philadelphia says it has never run into any difficulty in placing ads there. “However, because the shelters are public, in most cities they are placed under the same restrictions as the sides of buses. The city has the right to refuse any copy for whatever reason,” said Bruce Friedlander, president of Marketing Adventures.

Cleaver said the pro-life secretariat plans to learn more about what kinds of ads the city has run in bus shelters in the past. “If what they say bears out, then we may not take any other steps in Philadelphia. We are eager to move on to the next forum,” said Cleaver.

The secretariat plans to continue the ads in Philadelphia until the end of October before taking them to other dioceses that want to sponsor them.

Despite the bus shelter ban, Cleaver says she has been pleased with the public response to the Second Look Project. The Web site received more than 9,000 hits in its first two weeks.

The campaign's purpose is to provide basic factual information on abortion. “It was designed to speak to people who consider themselves pro-choice, but have been misinformed by sources in the mass media that are not prepared to tell the truth about abortion,” Cleaver said. She hopes that other dioceses might use the materials in their own communities, adding that the pro-life secretariat would make the ad materials available at cost.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese welcomed the campaign, but is disappointed with the rejection of the bus shelter ads. “We have successfully used the bus shelters to market our Catholic schools,” said director of communications Catherine Rossi, “but we have never encountered these problems in the past.”

New York's Experience

The American Life League encountered a similar problem with the ad agency for the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority during the summer of 2000. The MTA originally rejected an American Life League ad based upon content. But when MTA officials were confronted with the fact that they had previously run pro-abortion ads, they were forced to approve the American Life League ads, which appeared in New York subways in September 2000.

“If the city of Philadelphia is saying they do not accept ads based on content, then they should have rules about what is and is not allowed,” said American Life League's Jim Sedlak about the bus shelter ad ban. “They may have a policy, but the policy is wrong if it violates freedom of speech. Even the ACLU has stated that you cannot discriminate based on content.”

Tim Drake is the editor of, another publication of Circle Media