St. Charles Avenue is festooned with a variety of banners flapping from the city-owned lampposts along the 70-block-long neutral ground.
But the colorful flags promoting Loyola University’s latest fund drive, the services at Touro Infirmary, the anniversaries of local businesses and numerous other events and commemorations have been joined recently by banners with a more pointed message: 5-foot-tall images of a fetus and anti-abortion statements.
The campaign, sponsored by the Louisiana Right to Life Federation and New Orleans Right to Life, has raised questions about the propriety of using city property for political messaging.
The banners went up along a few blocks of St. Charles near Nashville Avenue in mid-December.
They were inspired by a similar campaign at the University of Southern California, said Ben Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life.
“St. Charles Avenue is the heart of our city, the symbolic heart of our city, right along the streetcar line,” Clapper said. “We thought there was no better place to put this message than right there.”
Next to the picture of a 19-week-old fetus in utero, the signs say, “Give her life a chance!” and claim that fetal heartbeats start 22 days after conception.
Clapper said the message is a reminder that “this is what we all looked like at that stage of development and we should cherish that.”
The placement of the signs on city property has rankled some abortion-rights advocates.
“For it to look like the city is endorsing this in the same way they would put up a banner for the anniversary of the Treme neighborhood is very inappropriate,” said Jessie Nieblas, communications coordinator for the New Orleans Abortion Fund, which tries to assist women who cannot afford to pay for abortions.
The rules governing what banners can be hung from city streetlights are relatively lax and require only that they fit within the broad category of “community awareness.” Commercial advertising and direct political campaigning — defined as endorsement of a specific candidate, referendum, vote or campaign — are prohibited, and the community message, rather than sponsorship information, must make up the majority of the banner, city spokesman Hayne Rainey said in an email.
The Department of Public Works oversees the application process, and the City Council does not weigh in on whether specific banners should qualify.
The cost of creating the banners and putting them on the lampposts is born by the organizations sponsoring them. The city does not charge for the use of the space.
Clapper said he considers the banners to be educational rather than political in nature. If critics have issues with the city’s guidelines, they should contact the city, he said.
However, Nieblas said the banners appear to give the city’s approval to the anti-abortion message. And she argued that “visceral” imagery, such as that featured on the banners, contributes to the stigma of abortions and can inspire more violent rhetoric and actions from anti-abortion activists.
“I think that being able to have that sort of messaging up in a public area, it damages our community, and it really damages women who need abortion services or who have needed abortion services in their lifetime,” she said.
In recent years, the focus of the fight over abortion in New Orleans has been a new women’s health care center Planned Parenthood is building on South Claiborne Avenue. That facility, which would be the only one the group operates in Louisiana that will perform abortions, has been the subject of protests organized by Louisiana Right to Life and has drawn condemnation from the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration also has found itself embroiled in the abortion controversy. In 2014, Landrieu issued and then rescinded a proclamation welcoming the anti-abortion group Operation Save America to the city.
That group has a history of intimidating abortion doctors and disrupted a Unitarian Church service while it was in New Orleans protesting the new Planned Parenthood facility. At the time, a spokesman for the Landrieu administration said the proclamation had been issued in error.
When asked about the Right to Life banners on Tuesday, Jewel Bush, Planned Parenthood’s communications director for Louisiana, said the organization is focused on continuing to provide health care for women.
“Our biggest concern is making sure that we help improve the health outcomes of Louisiana,” Bush said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.