God, I miss the good old days of the Super Bowl, when the hottest controversy was the post-game hand-wringing over how to spank CBS for subjecting America to Janet Jackson’s right boob.
This year, the game-related hullabaloo centers not on the halftime spectacle but on the ads—specifically, a pro-life spot featuring the curious case of 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. As the story goes, Pam and Bob Tebow were serving as Baptist missionaries in the Philippines when Pam was pregnant with Tim, their fifth child. Early in the pregnancy, Pam contracted amoebic dysentery, requiring treatment with hard-core meds that threatened not only to damage the fetus but also cause complications that could endanger her life. Citing such risks, her doctor recommended abortion. Pam refused, and the resulting progeny is the stuff of which football legends and high-octane anti-abortion ads are made.
Looking to twang several million heart strings during the gaudiest advertising spectacle of the year, Focus on the Family, culture warrior James Dobson’s evangelical empire, has put together a 30-second spot based on the story of Tim and Pam, with the theme “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life.” Pro-choice groups have, unsurprisingly, gone batshit. NARAL, in an email ominously titled, “Focus on the Family in Your Living Room,” is rallying women to pressure CBS to kill the ad and stick to its long-standing policy of not airing “advocacy ads”—a category distinct from regular commerce-focused ads hawking things like beer, trucks, or dating services—during the Super Bowl. Likewise, the Women’s Media Center, with backing from NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation, has launched a crusade, complete with online petition, to stop the “anti-choice Super Bowl ad.” Outraged critics contend that, since PETA, MoveOn.org, and the United Church of Christ have had ads deemed unfit in past years, anything with Focus on the Family’s fingerprints on it cannot now be permitted.
Despite being pro-choice—and anti-Dobson—I worry that the women’s groups are being short-sighted. From a political perspective, this Tebow ad is basically what the abortion debate should be about: a battle of ideas. It’s non-violent. It’s non-coercive. It’s not asking anyone to outlaw anything. It’s not even a sneaky arm-twisting maneuver aimed at bribing or blackmailing Republican politicians into toeing the pro-life line. It’s the schmaltzy tale of a woman who chose to carry her child to term despite the risk to her own life. And let’s face it: We’re not talking here about a scared teenager on the fence about the morality of abortion. Pam Tebow was a Baptist missionary; her faith pretty much called on her to carry that baby come hell or high water. Surely women aren’t so weak-minded they can’t be exposed to one happily-ever-after, praise-Jesus story without undergoing a Manchurian-candidate-esque brainwashing.
Will the spot be grotesquely emotionally manipulative? Well, d’uh. It’s a TV ad. But the proper response to the airing of objectionable political ideas is to counter with better ideas. Liberal groups should stop agitating for what sure as hell smells like political censorship and start scraping together $3 million for their own serious spots. (As opposed to the over-the-top sexual humor PETA fancies in its ads.) It has been six years since CBS caused a stink by piously turning away MoveOn and UCC—six long, financially scarring years in which the ad environment has grown so brutal I expect the networks any day now to start accepting advocacy ads from the likes of NAMBLA, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Gambino family. Under fire for the Tebow spot, CBS has talked big about having relaxed its policy on such issue ads in recent years. (As for the network’s current stand on purely commercial spots, who knows? Though it apparently isn’t yet hungry enough to go for a gay-dating-site ad featuring two guys making out.) It’s time for NARAL, NOW, the Women’s Media Center, MoveOn, the UCC, the NOH8 campaign, and other advocacy groups to make CBS puts its money where its mouth is, or, more accurately, its air time where their money is. (Though maybe PETA should stay out of it. Those guys are nuts.)
That said, I do wish CBS weren’t running the spot—not because I’m a pro-choice liberal but because I’m a protective parent. During Nipplegate, we heard endless yammering about how the Super Bowl is a family affair, an annual bonding ritual for millions of American parents and kids. I myself found the argument more than a little specious. After all, plenty of the buy-our-beer/jeans/breakfast cereal-and-oiled-naked-hotties-will-give-you-a-lap-dance ads that run during the Big Game are enough to sexually scar your average adult. But if many Americans indeed hold to this notion of the Super Bowl as more-or-less family-friendly, then it really isn’t an appropriate venue for any ad that talks about abortion—or any other seriously sexual topic. Not date rape. Not child porn. Not international sex trafficking. Grading on a curve, a split-second peek at Miss Nasty’s boob, while utterly tasteless, isn’t that hard to wave off with kids in the room; an ad that specifically aims to provoke discussion by focusing, no matter how cheerily, on a woman’s high-stakes decision about whether or not to terminate her pregnancy opens up a darker, more complicated can of worms. Regardless of how ecstatic the pro-life community is over Pam Tebow’s personal choice, the broader topic of abortion should remain firmly in the category of unsuitable for children.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.