Recently the Sanilac County Health Department put up a billboard in Michigan with the message “You Can Choose … this or this…” For the first choice the billboard showed a young pregnant woman on the left, covering her face with her hands and apparently crying, and then on the right, a young woman (not pregnant), smiling and wearing a graduation cap and gown. “Take Control of Your Future” the billboard concludes meaningfully.
The reaction to this message was negative to say the least. Many felt that the sign was suggesting that women can’t both be mothers and achieve success. Some interpreted the sign as intentionally belittling the choice to carry an unplanned pregnancy rather than get an abortion. (Whether or not this was the intent, one can’t help but notice the language of “choice” the billboard uses.) The happy girl on her graduation day appears almost to be smiling and looking down on the poor pregnant girl in her distress.
The Health Department responsible for the sign has since removed it and apologized for the billboard. “We now realize and apologize, that our original intent for the billboard was not correctly portrayed by its content,” they said. “We believe in strengthening the health and wellness of all our community members; women, children, and men, and this billboard did not accurately portray that.”
The Sanilac County Health Department responded well, and in many ways the manner in which this particular scandal wrapped up could be called a victory. In this city, the voices of mothers and pro-life women and men have been heard, and the governing authorities responded quickly and appropriately to their concerned citizens. We can applaud Sanilac, Michigan for that. But unfortunately this is not a one-off mistake. This is a symptom of a much deeper problem.
Take another instance of an offensive message from a public health organization which went up just last year in the UK. In an attempt to raise awareness about the availability of emergency contraception, the ad was simple and to the point. “Would you give up this…” the text indicates a picture of a ridiculously tall stiletto heel next to an open tube of lipstick “…for this?” it asks, the latter text indicating a pink pacifier.
Rather than contrasting motherhood with success, as the Sanilac billboard seemed to do, this one is blatantly contrasting motherhood with attractiveness and sex appeal. Are you sure you want to give up being sexy to be a mom? It seems to ask. Obviously not, so let’s avoid that ok?
Once again, this line of thinking is unfortunately so much bigger than a thoughtless advertising campaign. These assumptions — that motherhood gets in the way of personal achievement and feminine beauty — might be taboo to express, but they are nonetheless taken for granted as unquestionably true in Western culture today, and by more of us than we might like to admit.
Abortion has undermined the sanctity of motherhood. This is one of the many devastating fall-outs of a world that accepts abortion as permissible. We have already deprived babies of their personhood. And increasingly, we will do the same to mothers.
When we accept that pregnancy is optional and that a woman can choose to terminate it, this has implications for the women who do choose to bring their babies into this world. It’s all about choice. “If that’s what you want, it’s fine I guess, but just don’t get in the way of what anyone else wants.”
Now motherhood — perhaps the most selfless, others-focused vocation on the planet — can only be understood in terms of personal desire and choice. We cannot praise its selflessness, because that would be to call the women who chose to terminate their pregnancies selfish. We cannot honor mothers for their sacrifice or virtue, because that would be to suggest they chose better than the women who chose abortion. We have reduced the ancient and honored title of “mother” to a personal preference, hobby, or at best a job description comparable to “teacher” or “doctor,” or whatever else it is that we in our individualistic society want to grow up to be.
But motherhood is distinctly unlike a career. And while no mother should ever be told that she can’t have both, neither should any mother have her title compared to another woman’s job description. Hers is bigger — it is bigger than being a barista or a CEO. It isn’t putting down professional success to say so — it is simply acknowledging the monumental weight of being physically, emotionally, and legally responsible for the life of another person, a person who will be dependent upon you in some measure for roughly twenty years and shaped by you and your choices for the rest of both your lives. Throughout history this great responsibility has come with a high measure of honor. Thanks to choice-culture, that honor is swiftly on the decline.
If you are unsure of this, ask the mothers in your life. When someone asks them, “what do you do?” are they excited and proud to say that they are moms? Or do they prefer to emphasize whatever professional accolades they may have over the vocation that decidedly takes up the most of their time? Mothers too often are made to feel less interesting or important if they are not full time income earners or otherwise pursuing their own interests outside of the home.
I recently heard a story in which a married couple’s early and unplanned pregnancy was described as a “tragedy” by a young woman friend of theirs known to be pro-life. The couple was married and financially stable — they simply became parents earlier than they had planned to. And yet apparently, this was tragic.
We need to take a hard look at ourselves. Because while we might all agree that it is wrong to kill babies, we do not always live and act in ways that suggest we think it is noble or good or beautiful to bring babies into this world. Those of us who are pro-life should of all people should be the champions of mothers and fathers. We should empower rather than tear down. Do we believe that a woman has to choose between being beautiful and being a mom? Do we believe that a woman has to choose between being successful and being a mom? If so, we have believed lies as a consequence of an anti-mother world. This is the real tragedy.
It is time for women everywhere, and especially those who are prolife, to be calling the culture to look again, and look harder. We love the response from Protect Life Michigan to the Sanilac billboard. They collected photos from their community of mothers in their graduation caps and gowns and shared them with the caption “Women are capable of incredible things.”
Yes, they absolutely are. Mothers included.