Scheidler tries a cost-effective way to reach women in crises

Washington Bureau Chief

Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON—Participants in the March for Life this month in the nation's capital will be greeted by a new pro-life billboard campaign urging people to “See the World through the Eyes of a Child … Choose Life.”

The campaign, organized by the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago, began Dec. 28 and will continue through Jan. 24, two days after the annual March for Life. Twenty-five billboards will be placed in and around Washington, D.C.

A three-month campaign also began Jan. 4 in the Chicago area. This effort will involve rotating 120 billboards. Promoters hope to expand the program to other cities and to begin what they call the “From Sea to Shining Sea” campaign.

League executive director Joseph Scheidler said, “The Pro-Life Action League asks Americans to take another look at the terrible choice of abortion. It's our prayer that everyone who sees the billboards, especially pregnant women, will consider the viewpoint of a child who only wants a chance to live.”

The 12-by-24-foot billboards feature Scheidler's grandson, Aaron, who is stooping’ to pick up stones. The sign’ message reads: “Pregnant? Need Help?” Perhaps the key part of the advertisement is the inclusion of a toll-free number, 800-395-HELP, which routes women to a local center for help.

The telephone number is that of CareNET, a national network of about 450 crisis pregnancy centers.

CareNET, based in Sterling, Va., is part of the Christian Action Council founded in 1975 by pro-life Protestant leader Dr. Francis Schaeffer and others.

The billboards are strategically placed, often near abortion clinics. Ninety percent are illuminated. According to the League's communications director, Jerry Horn, “They're very positive and upbeat, and done in an extremely upbeat way.”

The billboard was designed by Cheryl St. Marie, a graphic artist who also works at Priests for Life. “We decided we wanted to focus on a child and something which offers a message of hope,” St. Marie told the Register. “We wanted something less graphic than some of the billboards of the past.”

The billboards are done in sepia tone, with yellow, brown, and orange type. “We chose warm colors because we wanted it to blend in with an urban environment,” St. Marie said.

Scheidler's wife, Ann, who is deputy director of the Pro-Life Action League, said, “The baby's eyes are really the center of the picture.” The expression of her 18-month-old grandson “is very captivating; it really grabs you.”

In designing the program, the Scheidlers consulted with Mary Ann Kuharski, a founder and the director of Prolife Minnesota, based in Minneapolis. This organization is the world's largest pro-life practitioner of billboard campaigns.

In 1998, for example, they placed 800 billboards throughout the state. They have seasonal and year-round displays which emphasize various themes. Eighty clinics, both pro-life and pro-chastity, are affiliated with the program.

Kuharski told the Register, “We use real positive messages in ways no one can get mad at us.” In one campaign, for example, they advertised: “Two million couples are waiting to adopt.”

“There's something about a billboard,” Kuharski said. One pregnant woman who was considering abortion told Kuharski she reconsidered after seeing the billboard because, “‘I felt it was God coming down to earth to talk to me.’”

Prolife Minnesota's success has spawned similar efforts in Washington state, Indiana, Kentucky, and Canada. In many cases, they use billboards designed by Kuharski and her colleagues.

“We had heard about what Mary Ann did in Minnesota and Washington state,” Ann Scheidler said. “The idea of reaching people with that quick message was very appealing to us.” Contributors to the project have been generous. A fund-raising letter brought in $58,000, about two-thirds of the money needed to run the project. They expect little difficulty in covering all the costs of the campaign.

Joseph Scheidler, who has been one of the most visible leaders of the pro-life movement for two decades, is known for his sidewalk counseling in Chicago and elsewhere. His peaceful protests and witnessing at abortion clinics led to his indictment under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Although found guilty last April 20 in the lawsuit brought by the National Organization for Women, Scheidler remains undaunted. This billboard campaign, he believes, allows his organization to present a positive message to women.

“We've been criticized by some women who ask, ‘Where were you pro-lifers when I had my abortion?’ There are women who are looking for help, and these billboards will provide it,” he said. “They will stand as a nonjudgmental sentry.

Horn, the communications director, added, “It tells the pro-abortion community that despite all their efforts to maim Joe and keep him down, they've failed. He's reaching women with a pro-life message, and he's reaching them through the media.”

While the Washington campaign coincides with the March for Life, the Chicago area effort will tie in to the annual Speak Out Illinois conference. The interfaith program of pro-life organizations in northern Illinois will take place Jan. 16. Chicago's Francis Cardinal George will officiate at this year's memorial service for unborn children, one of the day's events.

Some pro-life organizations, such as The Caring Foundation, have focused more on television spots or even radio advertising. Prolife Minnesota uses both television and radio. In the case of radio, for example, they have run 64 spots which cover all 87 of Minnesota's counties.

Still, Kuharski remains committed to the concept of billboard advertising. “There's something very powerful about a visible sign that's going to be there for a number of days,” she said.

These efforts are enhanced when the signs are placed at strategic locations; for example, near abortion clinics, high schools, and fast-food restaurants. A spokeswoman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America Inc., Sheila Hayes, notes that the signs round-the-clock exposure.

Joseph Scheidler sees the campaign as a compassionate effort to help both women and unborn children. “Today, as innocents are sacrificed on the altar of ‘choice,’ we hope that love again will prevail over death and that many lives will be saved.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.