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Catholic funded anti-abortion ads on BART spark heated controversy among commuters

"9 months. Because of Roe v. Wade, this is the amount of TIME the Supreme Court says it's legal to have an abortion. Abortion. Have we gone too far?" This was the question a series of ads posed to BART riders throughout the Bay Area in January. The ads have riled up the liberal-leaning Bay Area, bringing discussion about both abortion and first amendment rights to the forefront.

280 train ads as well as 48 station ads were posted throughout the BART system at the start of January, paid for by the The Respect Life Ministry of the Oakland Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. The ads have a web address at the bottom for the Second Look Project, a website run by the office of Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S., branch of the Roman Catholic Church.

Monika Rodman, the coordinator for the Respect Life Ministry, said the ads cost the group over $40,000, raised by the diocese through donations. The timing, coordinating with the Alito hearings was partially planned and partially luck, explained Rodman through an e-mail stating, "Fortuitously, after many months of work on funding the project, we secured funding just in time to launch the ads at the same time Washington, DC was gearing up for a new round of U.S. Supreme Court nominee hearings."

The ads take a slightly different approach to the usual pro-life debate. Instead of speaking of directly outlawing abortion, they take the angle of abortion laws being too lenient. Besides the aforementioned ad, another contained the text "The Supreme Court says you can choose. After the heart starts beating, after its arms and legs appear, after all organs are present, after the sex is apparent, after it sucks its thumb, after it responds to sound, after if could survive outside the womb," followed again by "Abortion, have we gone too far?"

Rodman explained the project as a "Roe v. Wade public education campaign designed to educate the public about the extreme nature of our country's abortion law, and to encourage individuals to re-consider their support for 'abortion rights'."

Senior Tracy Clark-Flory, who takes BART from Oakland to San Francisco three times a week, sees this message as being "dangerously attractive because it attempts to appeal to your rational side. Instead of arguing against a woman's right to abortion, they attack it from a different angle, attacking instead the lack of restrictions on when a woman can have an abortion during her term. It might seem somewhat rational on the surface, but it's a really slippery slope. It's step one in eroding a woman's right to abortions all together."

The ads have brought up conflict in many people who see both abortion and free speech as integral rights in our society. Carol Ward Allen, the president of the BART board of directors said, "As a woman and as a feminist I hate [the ads,] but as a BART director we checked it out, and we're dealing with first amendment rights, and we have to let them put them up just like anyone else."

Clark-Flory tried to look at the ads in a more constructive light, saying "I disagree with the message, but I also disagree with censorship. It's a little unpleasant being confronted with such a message, but it's also a good reminder that our rights are being threatened. If anything, I think it's a positive thing to have that kind of reminder, especially in the liberal Bay Area."

The ads fall into a category called point-of-view ads, which differ from commercial ads because they express an opinion. "Either we have to ban point-of-view ads, or we have to accept all point-of-view ads. If BART bans point-of-view ads, it means anyone who's running for Congress couldn't put up an ad and anyone who's trying to say that AIDS is bad couldn't put up an ad. It would be making a conscious decision to limit the ideas of a lot of people, not just the controversial ones," said Linton Johnson, BART spokesperson.

However, not everyone agrees with the view that the right to express an opinion is more important that the opinion being expressed. So many of the ads have been vandalized or ripped down that the supply of extra ads was run through quickly, and CBS Outdoor, the advertising company that places ads on BART was forced to extend the run time so that the Respect Life Ministry could get their full value. Since the costs of ad space assumes that the ads will be viewed for a set amount of time, the missing ads lowered this value. Johnson also added that "We are investigating those who have put graffiti on the ads, we're trying to locate the suspects and when we do we'll prosecute to the full extent of the law."

The same ads were placed in Washington DC Metro trains and stations a year ago. A spokesperson for Metro said that while the ads created some controversy, it was not noticeably more than other ad campaigns that have run there before. Metro, like BART, has a policy to not decline ads based on content. "If anyone objects to an ad, they are welcome to voice their compliant to us, they are welcome to submit a counter ad. Any ad is welcomed here, and any ad will be accepted," said the spokesperson.

In fact, the issue most people on either side of the abortion debate seem to agree on is that though they may disagree, both sides have a right to their respective views. Johnson, who declined to weigh in on the abortion-rights debate, did sum up the seemingly majority opinion, "Everybody has a right to free speech, and the only way a properly run democratic society can work is to let everybody express their opinion. I don't support trying to limit anybody's opinion, and I'm glad BART doesn't either."