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Published July 29, 2012, 11:30 PM

Anti-abortion billboards have roots in Minnesota

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

By: Richard Chin, St. Paul Pioneer Press, INFORUM

ST. PAUL – If you’ve driven Interstate 35 between the Twin Cities and Duluth in the past 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 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.

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

Kuharski was put up for adoption 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.

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.”

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

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.

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.