This Abortion Rights Billboard Got Taken Down Before Obama Could See It

Reproductive health advocates say they were told Kenyan officials insisted on the removal of the billboard criticizing Obama's position on a controversial abortion rule.

A billboard protesting Obama's strict interpretation of the anti-abortion Helms Amendment was taken down on July 10, as Kenya prepared for its first visit from Obama since he became the U.S. president.

The billboard was put up by Reproductive Health Services, a Kenyan group, and the DC-based Catholics for Choice, ahead of Obama's visit, which begins Friday.

Dr. John Nyamu, executive director of Reproductive Health Services told BuzzFeed News that the billboard purveyor informed him Nairobi City Council representatives removed the billboard.

Nyamu said no specific reason was given, but he thinks the overt criticism of a sitting president, and the inclusion of his face, struck a nerve. "In Kenya, we don't criticize the leader, especially if he's the president," Nyamu said. The government here "is welcoming [Obama] like a Kenyan president, a person who has a lot of respect, and I sense that they don't want anything negative."

Jon O'Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, said by telephone: "It is particularly shocking because the democratic tradition is if you're an elected official, you should be capable of receiving constructive criticism."

The Helms Amendment is a 1973 regulation that prohibits federal funding in foreign countries from paying for an abortion "as a method of family planning" or from encouraging women to seek an abortion.

Abortion has been legal, in certain circumstances, in Kenya since 2010 but Kenyan women's organizations say the Helms Amendment interferes with women's access to services. They sent a letter to Obama last week asking him to loosen his administration's interpretation of the restriction.

Catholics for Choice offered to redraft the billboard. But that didn't fly, either.

"They had completely censored our mesage," O'Brien said. So they tried something even simpler.

But the authorities were still:

"I think they got fed up this week," O'Brien said. He said the organization was basically told, "We're not talking to you until after the Obama visit."

But the same image from the billboard ran as an ad in several Kenyan newspapers today.

RT our censored ad & stand in solidarity w/Kenyan women who need #reprohealth care #HelmsHurts

"We're trying to use this opportunity to give [Obama] a message, and since he has an interest in Kenya, he could have looked at this [Helms] issue differently and perhaps abolished this amendment," Nyamu said.