Anti-abortion demonstrators painted the phrase “BLACK PREBORN LIVES MATTER” on the street outside Planned Parenthood in downtown Baltimore, spelling out in 10-foot yellow letters Saturday a message they said is in keeping with the “Black Lives Matter” theme that has helped fuel anti-racism protests across the country this year.
Students for Life of America joined with members of The Frederick Douglass Foundation and Human Coalition Action, an anti-abortion nonprofit group, to organize and carry out the painting. Fifteen people began working with buckets and paint rollers at 5 a.m. and completed the mural within an hour and a half.
The paint is tempera, which washes away with rain.
Police officers who arrived at the scene shortly after 6 a.m. allowed the words to remain in place — and chose not to issue citations — on the grounds that the demonstrators were not impeding traffic and that use of removable paint didn’t constitute destruction of property. They also said the city has established precedent in recent months by allowing other groups to paint or chalk messages in the streets.
“[The message] will remain here unless the city wants to come take it out, and that would be outside the police department,” Baltimore Police Sgt. Vincenzo Julio said.
Michele Hendrickson, the East Coast regional director for Students for Life, said the decision came as a pleasant surprise.
In a similar action last month in Washington, D.C., also involving Students for Life of America, police arrested two people outside a Planned Parenthood center. They were charged with defacing property after they started writing “Black Pre-Born Lives Matter” in chalk on a sidewalk.
“We’re thankful for the fair and equal treatment we’ve received in being allowed to practice our right to free speech in this city,” Hendrickson said after Baltimore police left the scene Saturday.
Spokespersons for Planned Parenthood did not immediately respond Saturday to requests for comment. The center on North Howard Street was closed for business over the Labor Day weekend.
Demonstrators said “Black Preborn Lives Matter” conveys a crucial message at a time when “Black Lives Matter” has taken a prominent place in the public conversation, because abortion is a disproportionately common outcome of pregnancies among people of color, particularly African Americans.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research and education organization first established by Planned Parenthood, reported in a 2017 study that African American women have abortions at more than twice the rate their white counterparts do.
The study’s authors wrote, however, that the disparity stems not from any attempt by abortion providers to “target” minority communities, but from a higher rate of unintended pregnancy in those communities resulting from insufficient access to reproductive health-care programs.
Planned Parenthood has consistently denied implications that it works to the disadvantage of minorities.
After Republican President Donald Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, who is Black, said in 2015 that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger “was not particularly enamored of Black people. He argued that Planned Parenthood puts “most of their clinics in Black neighborhoods” to “control the Black population.” A spokeswoman for the organization shot back that he was “wrong on the facts and flat-out insulting.”
Planned Parenthood has said the proximity of sites to lower-income neighborhoods makes reproductive health care more accessible to those who can least afford it.
Some anti-abortion activists do see a more sinister motive. Christopher Anderson of Baltimore is one of them.
“Most people don’t see that this all amounts to a form of Black genocide,” said Anderson, who is Black and a member of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a national public policy and education group that advocates free-market solutions to societal problems. “If we’re going to be consistent and say ’Black Lives Matter,’ we will defund racist organizations like Planned Parenthood. We are standing in the gap for Black lives.”
At a news conference, Toni McFadden, 40, an African American activist from Reading, Pennsylvania, told a crowd that had grown to about 25 people that she’d had an abortion at 18, a decision she said she made “out of fear” and one she says she would make differently today.
“I’m here because I believe that all Black lives matter, not just those who fit a particular narrative, and that includes pre-born Black lives.”
For Hamrick, one goal of the day was to assert a right to free speech for the anti-abortion position, one equal to that of groups with opposing views. Because the city has allowed other painted messages, like “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police,” she said, her group should legally be granted the same right.
To that end, Students for Life of America wrote Aug. 13 to Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, asking permission to paint the message. Hamrick said they never got a response. A spokesman for the mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
To Hendrickson, being granted that right to leave their message in place, and doing so, amounted to an unexpected triumph.
“Today was definitely a victory,” she said.