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Richard Chin, St. Paul Pioneer Press , Published July 29 2012

Anti-abortion ‘billboard people’ rooted in Minnesota

ST. PAUL — If you’ve driven Interstate 35 between the Twin Cities and Duluth in the last 20 years, you’ve almost certainly seen a message from Mary Ann Kuharski.

Right alongside the highway, you’ll find a billboard with the jumbo-sized image of a cute baby’s face and a simple line of text: “Heartbeat 18 days from conception,” or “Fingerprints at 9 weeks” or “I could dream before I was born!”

It’s not just on the way to Duluth that you can see the baby billboards.

Baby faces laughing, smiling, sleeping or wearing funny hats have loomed over roadways in Neptune, N.J.; Wenatchee, Wash., and Sugarland, Texas, telling motorists to “cherish life born & unborn” and that “a new human life begins at conception.”

Last year, there were 6,500 of the signs erected in 42 states.

They’re all thanks to an organization started by Kuharski in 1989 in her living room in St. Anthony, Minn., with her husband, another couple from her church and a handful of fellow volunteers.

The group became Prolife Across America — “The Billboard People” — an organization dedicated to “changing hearts and saving babies’ lives.”

Kuharski, the director of the nonprofit originally called Prolife Minnesota, said her aim is to use outdoor advertising to convey a kinder, gentler message in the often bitter and emotionally charged abortion debate.

Her signs don’t have gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses. (Billboard companies wouldn’t allow that sort of image in any case, Kuharski said.) And there’s no call to ban abortion or to brand the practice as murder.

“We’re not here arguing and trying to be in your face,” Kuharski said. “I don’t see how that saves a baby’s life.”

“You’ve never seen the word ‘abortion’ on our billboards,” she said.

Just pictures of cute babies and messages that say, “Before I was even born I could smile!”

“Every one of our ads are positive,” she said. “At least, we think they are.”

And Kuharski thinks the billboards can save lives.

She said she talks to many of the people who call the 1-800 number on the signs, like the father driving his young daughter to have an abortion who told her he had a change of heart after seeing one of her signs. A trucker once called after rethinking his efforts to urge his girlfriend to have an abortion, Kuharski said. And a woman was inspired by a billboard to call about the remorse and suicidal feelings she had over her abortions.

Kuharski refers callers to help from agencies around the country, such as anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers, suicide-prevention services, men’s support groups and adoption organizations.

Kuharski, who said she is over 65, was put up for adoption herself when she was an infant in a St. Paul orphanage. She was adopted at 9 months old and raised by a family in Minneapolis. She was a 20-year-old legal secretary when she got married and started having kids.

“I figured two or four would be nice,” she said. It turned out to be a few more: seven biological children and six special-needs adoptees from places including the Philippines, Vietnam and India.

“I just think adoption is part of God’s Plan B,” she said.

Kuharski also was an active foot soldier in the anti-abortion movement, involved in organizations like Minnesotans Citizens Concerned for Life and Human Life Alliance. She helped start something called Feminists for Life and once was an anti-abortion national delegate with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

“I thought politics were the answer,” she said.

A devout Catholic, Kuharski said her opposition to abortion is more a matter of civil rights and justice.

“Because it’s not right,” she said. “You can’t let babies die, and it’s not a choice.”

But she said her billboards convey a message that isn’t political.

“We just want to remind people of the beauty of human life,” she said.

In its first year, the organization raised money from friends and put up 42 billboards in Minnesota featuring a simple black-and-white drawing of a fetus and the motto “A Baby is a Baby, is a Baby, is a Baby.”

“The ad itself was so primitive,” Kuharski said.

The billboards spread beyond the state as the organization raised more money and people from other parts of the country started sending in donations and asking for billboards near them.

Last year, the organization raised about $1.2 million, mainly through donations averaging $30 to $50, Kuharski said.

“I got a donation from England one time,” she said. Donations have come from people in prison and from kids who raise money growing pumpkins and squash to fund a sign, she said.

Kuharski said about 95 percent of the donations go back to putting signs on billboards.

The organization is run out of a modest office in St. Anthony with four staffers and a handful of volunteers. Its latest annual report states that it paid a total of $65,811 in salaries and compensation in 2011. Kuharski reported receiving no compensation.

“It’s amazing to me what they can do with all those donations,” said Liz Scott, an account executive with Lamar Advertising, the nation’s biggest billboard company. She said Kuharski is one of her best customers. “She has a good knowledge of our business. She has a plan, and she makes sure she watches every dollar that she spends.

“She’s smart as a whip and she’s tough. She’s tough but sweet, firm but gentle,” Scott said of Kuharski.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the organization hit upon the idea of putting a photograph of a baby on a billboard.

“Even people who are pro-abortion love their own babies,” Kuharski said. “There’s something about seeing a baby’s face that tells our story better than we can.”

The photos are baby pictures of children or grandchildren of staffers or donors, some who get such a charge out of seeing their child’s photo on a billboard that they’ve taken pictures of themselves next to the sign to create an image to send out with their Christmas card, Kuharski said.

The organization’s office is full of pictures of babies and billboards. There’s also several images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the pope. Although staffers pray for guidance at the beginning of the meetings when they discuss ideas for a billboard design, Kuharski said Prolife Across America isn’t a religious organization,

“We even have some atheists who support us,” Kuharski said.

Also atheists who mock them. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Atheists organization put up a billboard in St. Paul that was a pro-atheism parody of the anti-abortion baby billboards. Kuharski said she was flattered by the imitation.

“If (the billboards) are childish and simplistic, I’m fine with that,” Kuharski said. “The babies are so beautiful, they sell the message themselves.”

Kuharski said the reaction to the billboards has included people who say they are manipulative, people who threaten to deface them and people who say they should be more forceful in denouncing abortion.

Linnea House, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, said she doesn’t think the billboards threaten the right to choose an abortion. But she said they seem to be targeted in their locations, noting that there’s a Prolife Across America billboard on University Avenue in St. Paul near a Planned Parenthood center.

House said supporters have asked her why her organization doesn’t put up billboards of its own. House said the money can be better spent on improving women’s access to comprehensive prenatal care.

But Kuharski said her billboards are a “tender” response to what she calls a “terrible injustice.”

“We each are called to do something,” she said. “I believe God called me to do this.”