CBS has scheduled an ad from Focus on the Family to air during the Super Bowl on February 7, 2010. The ad features 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow (hereinafter “Tim”) and his mother, Pam Tebow (hereinafter “Mrs. Tebow”) who will:
share a personal story centered on the theme of "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life."
Although no one outside FotF and CBS has seen the ad, it is expected that the ad will feature Mrs. Tebow talking about her decision to carry Tim to term despite advice from doctors that the pregnancy would almost certainly result in a stillbirth and would endanger her health.
Various women’s groups have objected to the ad including NOW, NARAL, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Women’s Media Center. These organizations make a number of arguments for not showing the ad, some tiresome, some interesting.
My guess - and it’s just a guess - is that this is going to prove to be a tempest in a teapot. According to Advertising Age:
[FotF’s] Super Bowl commercial is not polarizing and does not take an "anti" stance against any issue, according to a person familiar with the situation.
According to Gary Schneeberger, a Focus on the Family spokesman:
the message is likely to act ... as an offer of help, with the hope the commercial will generate awareness for the organization and its family services
Given these characterizations, I anticipate the Tebow ad is going to consist of several shots of Tim Tebow from childhood to athletic stardom, his mother saying something to the effect that she’s so glad she decided to go ahead and have him despite the worries about his health, Tim saying “Thanks, Mom”, and a voiceover reading something like, “Contact Focus on the Family for help in difficult times.”
Nonetheless, one of the arguments against running the ad caught my eye. It turned up in the letter to CBS from CPR (available as a pdf within this Salon post) and in a letter to CBS from Gloria Allred of the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund (available as a pdf within this RadarOnline post). The CPR’s letter is a sort of “concern troll” approach, worrying that CBS may be putting itself in a bad position if the ad is not accurate:
In recognition of its responsibility to operate the network in the public interest, CBS has long followed a policy requiring that all claims in advertisements be carefully and closely reviewed for accuracy.
CPR goes on to argue that the fact that abortion has been illegal in the Philippines since 1870:
raises questions about whether physicians in the Philippines would have urged a married pregnant woman to illegally terminate her pregnancy in 1987.
In other words, if Mrs. Tebow claims that her doctors in the Philippines urged her to have an abortion, she is lying.
Allred’s letter repeats this charge without any of the “concern troll” nonsense and ups the stakes considerably. You really should read the whole thing - “Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition” - but here’s the gist of it:
Will you still insist on running this anti-choice commercial if it turns out to be misleading advertising? [snip]
Was her choice to give birth an alternative chosen because it was more practical and less risky, (given the illegality of the abortion procedure) or was her choice simply a matter of faith? [snip]
I hope I never see this ad on CBS but if I do, I hope that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be watching it and evaluating it for misleading advertising as well.
If this ad airs, and fails t disclose that abortions were illegal at the time that Ms. Tebow made her “choice”, then I intend to file a formal complaint of misleading advertising with those federal commissions.
Now Mrs. Tebow is not merely lying about being advised to get an abortion, she is lying about the reason she chose not to have one: she carried the pregnancy to term because having an illegal abortion in the Philippines would have been too dangerous.
I almost don’t know what to say about this type of attack on Mrs. Tebow. The people writing these letters have no evidence that she is lying; they merely have a set of circumstances they believe suggest the conclusion they prefer to draw. I can play that game myself and find circumstances I believe suggest the conclusion they would prefer not to draw: that Mrs. Tebow is telling the truth. CPR itself says:
Every year, more than 500,000 women in the country try to terminate their pregnancies. In 2008 alone, criminal abortions resulted in the deaths of at least 1000 women and 90,000 more suffered complications.
Someone must be performing those abortions and even if all 91,000 that went badly were performed by the women themselves, someone competent must have performed at least some of the remaining 409,000. I’m reasonably sure there are doctors in the Philippines performing abortions just as there were always doctors in the United States performing abortions even when the procedure was illegal.
Furthermore, Mrs. Tebow was an American. It’s entirely possible she consulted doctors in the United States via telephone. It would have been a trivial matter for her to get on a plane and fly to the nearest country in which abortion was legal. And even if no Philippine physician was willing to directly advise abortion, it’s fairly easy to imagine one telling Mrs. Tebow that her serious illness had probably irreparably damaged her child and presented a risk to her own health and she might want to consult with doctors back in the United States about what course was the best to pursue. After all, abortion in such a case is clearly the medically correct thing to do so any doctor worth his salt would surely have attempted to make sure his patient understood that. Right?
The simple fact is that no one except the people involved 23 years ago know exactly what happened. Yet in order to stop an ad they don’t like from airing, some women’s groups have no compunction about accusing Mrs. Tebow of lying about what she was told, lying about why she made the choice she did, and - who knows - perhaps lying about ever being sick at all. When did women become fair game for this type of slander - from other women?
I simply don’t understand what is so threatening about this ad. As Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List said:
Shouldn't the ‘pro-choice’ position respect Pam Tebow's decision to choose Life? What is the worst case scenario in allowing the ad to air? Women are exposed to an example of sacrifice for the sake of an unborn child. NOW needs to explain where the harm and threat to women and children is here.
I have to agree with Dannenfelser that those criticizing the ad seem “[desperate] to keep full information from women.” If a pro-choice position is the correct position then allowing information about the other choice cannot possibly damage support for allowing women to choose abortions.
It seems to me that if pro-choice groups are so upset about the Tebow ad, the appropriate response is not censorship but rather presenting their own view of the matter. The Media Decoder blog at the New York Times points out that:
For many years, CBS had a policy against selling time to organizations expressing opinions on controversial topics in spots on any programming. [snip]
CBS, however, has changed its policy and has accepted issue ads in prime time on subjects like health care reform. The network has also run issue commercials from Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens.
A CBS spokesman has stated that:
The network follows a policy, he said, that “insures that all ads on all sides of an issue are appropriate for air.”
On Tuesday, he added that CBS “will continue to consider responsibly produced ads” from advocates on any issues for whatever commercial time was left during Super Bowl XLIV.
As the Media Decoder piece makes clear, this appears to open the door for those organizations who object to the Tebow ad to produce their own ads to air during the Super Bowl or, for that matter, during any of CBS’ primetime slots. The groups that oppose the Tebows’ message could produce an ad that features a woman who was advised as Mrs. Tebow was, followed her doctor’s advice, and is grateful to be alive to care for her other children. Or they could produce an ad featuring a man whose wife was advised as Mrs. Tebow was, did not take the advice, and died from complications of the pregnancy. The grieving husband could talk about the devastating effect his wife’s death had on their surviving children.
Or those who oppose the Tebows’ message could have gotten their message across for free by simply following the New York Times’ editorial advice:
The would-be censors are on the wrong track. Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about: protecting the right of women like Pam Tebow to make their private reproductive choices.
Instead, those opposing the ad have put themselves in the position of looking like they’re terrified to have us hear anything that might make any woman think twice about having an abortion. The American people really aren’t stupid: it’s not going to take long for it to dawn on them that if people on the other side of the issue are so dangerous they must be censored, then maybe they’re saying something worth listening to.
Still, while I think the pro-choice groups’ arguments against the Tebow ad are dismaying and dangerous, I do admit to a great deal of sympathy for people like Gregg Doyel, a CBS.com columnist:
''If you're a sports fan, and I am, that's the holiest day of the year,'' he wrote. ''It's not a day to discuss abortion. For it, against it, I don't care what you are. On Super Sunday, I don't care what I am. Feb. 7 is simply not the day to have that discussion.''