Porn Stores & Fetus Billboards

Reflections come quickly when I’m driving on the long stretch of 1-10 between Texas and Louisiana.

As the landscape transforms from lush bayou country to arid Texas ranchland, I see blank smiles and partially clothed female bodies on billboards advertising everything from porn stores to sub-par meals. I see large-scale fetuses and toddlers imploring me to not kill them. I see fear and objectification and a desire to control.

I am a woman, and a Unitarian Universalist Minister. I have studied, worked, traveled, learned some things, married and had a child. I am a member of a family, a church and a community. But looking at the 1-10 driving landscape - its fetus billboards and sex shops - you'd think as a woman I was one of two things: an incubator or an object.

The corridor, an embodiment of our culture, insists on this. And, even more damning, this odd visual mixture of hyper-fantasized female representation on porn billboards and women's complete erasure on fetus billboards can and does become actual legislation.

In Louisiana's 2016 session alone State Representatives defeated a bill requiring businesses to pay men and women equal wages for equal work while adding seven new abortion restrictions, including tripling the mandatory waiting period for women seeking abortion care. In addition, the 2016 session included a joking amendment to an anti-trafficking bill holding that strippers have a 28-year-old age-limit and weight-limit of 160.

As a New Orleans Unitarian Universalist minister—a religion which has one of the most comprehensive, medically accurate sexual education curriculums in the nation—I believe that sexuality rooted in free sexual expression and self-worth is a divine gift.

But let's be honest: these large-scale images along the I-10 have little do with my own sexuality - I am to be looked at, a commodity, advertised as "barely legal," or alongside a 10-oz steak and a beer for $11.99. Spaced along the interstate, we women are made to signal like sirens of old, beckoning men off-course from their legion highway journeys, a public reminder that women are there to be bought and discarded.

Intermingled with ads for sex shops and, the ultimate enigma, sexy burger joints, stand a phalanx of fetus billboards. Sometimes these billboards depict a fetus, with a fact about a heartbeat or the size of a foot. One billboard has a 2-year-old wearing a leather jacket, riding a tiny motorcycle with the caption - "I want to ride...Pro-Life." In projecting a fetus' development into the far future these billboards employ a uniquely odd brand of magical thinking. Why no fully-grown man on a motorcycle with that same caption? Or more to the point, biologically speaking, there is always a woman involved - where is she?

Just as the groups funding these billboards have no interest in what becomes of a child once it is born (where are the billboards demanding universal pre-k?), women, tasked with living real lives and making real choices about their real bodies, have no place amidst this vinyl-backed propaganda.

The realities of women's stories are a threat and an inconvenience to agendas that seek to end a woman's ability to control her body. It is better for those agendas that we simply disappear - not just visually but also as citizens.

This erasure and commodification has consequences for all of us along the I-10.

According to a recent comprehensive study by Ibis Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights, my home state of Louisiana, which has the second-highest number of abortion restrictions in the nation, ranks in the bottom percentage of women and children's health. And since 2011, Texas has been at the forefront of passing anti-reproductive rights legislation when new, more conservative state legislators came to power. According to a study in the upcoming issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in 2011, the same year that Texas defunded Planned Parenthood and provided deep cuts to other women's health programs, the State experienced a startling increase in pregnancy-related deaths, from which it has still not recovered.[1]

Louisiana and Texas women's healthcare choices are not dictated by women in consultation with our families, our communities, our medical providers and our faith, as they should be. Instead, these decisions are legislated by (overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white) state representatives whose campaigns are often supported and legislation written by those same fetus billboard funders. One group in particular, American United for Life, writes on its website that "our model legislation enables legislators to easily introduce bills without needing to research and write the bills themselves."[2]

At stake here are the lives of our citizenry, in particular low-income women and women of color who are disproportionally impacted by this legislation. This impact on Reproductive rights is what the leaders of the Reproductive Justice Movement - created and led by women of color to affirm the rights of all women to have children, to not have children and to raise the children that they do have in safe and healthy environments - have been writing and speaking about for years.

The cultural and legislative chipping away of the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision came in the form of State legislatures slowly restricting access to reproductive healthcare through cuts to Medicaid funding for abortion, wait times for healthcare access, TRAP laws that put an undue burden on healthcare clinics - all of which impacted most profoundly low-income women and women of color. Too often white, cisgender, economically stable feminists, of which I am one, ignored this creeping legislation and the calls of Reproductive Justice leaders, like the leaders of SisterSong, to combat this injustice because it didn't "affect" their daily lives.

The recent Supreme Court Whole Women's Health V. Hellerstedt decision, which struck down a deceptive Texas law designed to shut down more than 75% of all woman's health centers providing abortion services, was an affirmation of women's reproductive rights. But it is also not the end of a decades-long agenda to erase or stigmatize women - particularly poor women and women of color - legislatively and culturally. State legislatures will continue to find ways to dismantle access to the full-range of reproductive healthcare for women. Following the lead of Reproductive Justice leaders, all people must be vigilant in recognizing the dismantling of every woman's Reproductive Rights and Healthcare - this has been and will always be sacred work.

Thousands of people drive the 1-10 corridor from Louisiana to Texas every day. Commuters, truckers, vacationers. Many women drive it, too, desperately trying to obtain the healthcare to which they are entitled. Condescended to by politicians, harassed by protestors, often risking jobs as sole support for their families - it's not an easy drive, if one can afford to drive it at all. Driving the 1-10 myself, I can’t help but wonder what versions of themselves women see reflected in 1-10 billboards. How do they feel cared for or represented as they work and live in a State with a legislature that tells them that their bodies, their lives, and their dreams are as transitory as the vinyl backing that baby-on-a-motorcycle image?

As dire as these billboards and legislation may be, as a woman and a Minister in Louisiana I also see Reproductive Justice, Health and Right leaders, such as the member groups of the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, particularly Women With A Vision, demanding to be seen and heard as they transform our legislature and culture. It is in support of their faithful work and honoring the rights of all citizens from Texas to Louisiana and beyond that I will continue to follow my sacred call to support Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice for all women.

It's a highway toward justice that we must all travel.

[1] Pregnancy-Related Deaths Nearly Doubled In Texas After Cuts to Women's Health. Laura Bassett, Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/womens-health-texas_us_57b5d949e4b034dc73260bf3

[2] http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/12/02/3597770/americans-united-life-abortion/

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