ATLANTA – The message on dozens of billboards across the city is provocative: Black children are an "endangered species."
The eyebrow-raising ads featuring a young black child are an effort by the anti-abortion movement to use race to rally support within the black community. The reaction from black leaders has been mixed, but the "Too Many Aborted" campaign, which so far is unique to only Georgia, is drawing support from other anti-abortion groups across the country.
"It's ingenious," said the Rev. Johnny Hunter, national director of the Life Education and Resource Network, a North Carolina-based anti-abortion group aimed at African-Americans that operates in 27 states. "This campaign is in your face, and nobody can ignore it."
The billboards went up last week in Atlanta and urge black women to "get outraged."
The effort is sponsored by Georgia Right to Life, which also is pushing legislation that aims to ban abortions based on race.
Black women accounted for the majority of abortions in Georgia in 2006, even though blacks make up just a third of state population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nationally, black women were more than three times as likely to get an abortion in 2006 compared with white women, according to the CDC.
"I think it's necessary," Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, said of the billboard campaign. "Abortion in the black community is at epidemic proportions. They're not really aware of what's actually going on. If it shocks people ... it should be shocking."
Anti-abortion advocates say the procedure has always been linked to race. They claim Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger wanted to eradicate minorities by putting birth control clinics in their neighborhoods, a charge Planned Parenthood denies.
"The language in the billboard is using messages of fear and shame to target women of color," said Leola Reis, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Georgia. "If we want to reduce the number of abortions and unintended pregnancies, we need to work as a community to make sure we get quality affordable health care services to as many women and men as possible."
In 2008, Issues4Life, a California-based group working to end abortion in the black community, lobbied Congress to stop funding Planned Parenthood, calling black abortions "the Darfur of America."
Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler said a race-based strategy for anti-abortion activists has gotten a fresh zeal, especially in the wake of the historic election of the country's first black president, Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights.
"He's really out of step with the rest of black America," Scheidler said. "That might be part of what may be shifting here and why a campaign like this is appropriate, to kind of wake up that disconnect."
Abortion rights advocates are disturbed. Spelman College professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall called the strategy a gimmick.
"To use racist arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be anti-abortion is just disgusting," said Guy-Sheftall, who teaches women's history and feminist thought at the historically black women's college.
"These one-issue approaches that are not about saving the black family or black children, it's just a big distraction," she said. "Many black people don't know who Margaret Sanger is and could care less."