Focus on the Fetus

Focus on the Fetus

The trouble with protesting the Tim Tebow ad: all most people see is pro-choicers trying to shut up a brave mother and her son.


Focus on the Fetus

If Planned Parenthood or NARAL or NOW spent some $2.5 million on a thirty-second Super Bowl spot, I would never give them another dime. What a colossal waste of money! Thus, part of me was thrilled to learn that Focus on the Family was paying that staggering sum for an ad featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam, who say how glad they are that she didn’t follow her doctor’s advice and abort him twenty-three years ago. Every dollar FOTF spends messaging the fans is a dollar not available to pay the electricity bill or keep staff on payroll–and in fact, FOTF has recently laid off hundreds of employees. Maybe next year FOTF will show us founder Dr. James Dobson reprising his 2005 attack on SpongeBob SquarePants for appearing in a “pro-homosexual video” or advising parents on the proper way to hit their children (“the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely”).

In retrospect it was probably a mistake for prochoice and feminist organizations to demand that CBS cancel the ad. Technically, they have a strong point: after all, in recent years the network, citing a no-advocacy policy, has rejected ads from PETA, MoveOn and even a spot from the United Church of Christ that gently announced its support of diversity and openness to gays and lesbians. Only when called on the apparent double standard did CBS announce it had changed its policy–and then it was revealed that even after this supposed change, the network had rejected an ad from ManCrunch, a gay dating website. Without mentioning CBS’s history of banning progressive ads, the New York Times published an editorial denouncing protesters for “censorship.” A sensible person might wonder who, really, is being the censor here. Nonetheless, most people are not going to follow the details any more than the Times did. All they see is prochoicers trying to shut up a brave mother and her fine young son.

You have to hand it to the antichoicers. Only a few years ago they were taking out newspaper ads accusing teenage girls of having abortions to fit into their prom dresses. Today the public face of the movement is warm and woman-friendly: it’s Sarah Palin knowingly bearing a son with Down syndrome and Bristol embracing single teen motherhood and abstinence. It’s Pam Tebow, who says she refused to have an abortion although doctors warned that the antibiotics she had been given for amebic dysentery had caused a placental abruption, possibly damaging the fetus and risking her life. Doubts have been raised about some elements in her story–did the doctors “urge” abortion or just mention it as an option? Also, abortion was (and still is) illegal in the Philippines, where the Tebows were living at the time. But whatever. Trust in God and your own inner strength, the message is, and all will be well. You can do it. Choose Life.

It’s maddening that the people who want to take away women’s right to choose have annexed “choice” to their own cause. If the law compelled women like Sarah and Bristol Palin and Pam Tebow to continue problem pregnancies, there would be no heroism in doing so–you don’t get much credit for taking the difficult path if that’s your only option. Opponents of abortion rights want you to forget that if they had their way there would be no choice. And the soft approach seems to be working. As longtime prochoice leaders Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman wrote in a controversial Washington Post essay, “Today, all sorts of well-educated and progressive people are comfortable calling themselves prolife. In the public eye, the term seems to encompass a broader and more moderate vision, not focused solely on what it opposes.” Of course, antichoicers still compare abortion to the Holocaust, spread misinformation (abortion will make you sterile!), heap up restrictions that place abortion out of reach for many women, and murder the occasional provider. The organization Kissling and Michelman cite as representing the new, crunchy prolife approach, Feminists for Life, quietly supports a total ban on abortion, insinuates that birth control is harmful to women and, four years after its president, Serrin Foster, told me she was considering removing from the website claims that abortion causes breast cancer, still posts that disinformation. But the happy-talk proceeds on a separate channel beamed squarely at Middle America.

“I don’t think we can cede to the right wing our ability to communicate with mainstream America,” Michelman told me by phone. NARAL’s costly, multiyear Choice for America ad campaign, she said, which used patriotic symbols to associate abortion rights with American values, was very successful–until the funding dried up. I hate to think our rights depend on which side has the best ad agency or the cheeriest message, or the most spare millions lying about for thirty-second spots. Are people really so easily manipulated? Don’t answer that.

The trouble is, much of the abortion rights case is about averting damage, and it’s harder to tell those stories. We hear about the Pam Tebows, not about the women who listened to the doctors and terminated a dangerous pregnancy–or about those for whom disregarding that advice was a big mistake. Imagine a Super Bowl ad like this: Mother in kitchen with kids: “Thank God I listened to my doctor when she told me my pregnancy had gone terribly wrong. If I hadn’t, I might be dead, and my children would be growing up without a mother.” Or Husband at graveside: “Sally had so much spirit, so much faith. I just wish she’d trusted her doctor… this one time.”

And what if Tim Tebow hadn’t turned out so well? In antichoice mythology the aborted fetus is always Beethoven or some other genius born in discouraging circumstances. What if it was Ted Bundy? Elderly Austrian woman in a dirndl: “I told my husband four children would be too many, but he said not to talk such nonsense–all the Schicklgrubers had lots of kids.”

What would the CBS censors make of that?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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