What Tim Tebow's Super Bowl ad can teach the pro-choice movement

More than two decades before Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow filmed a Super Bowl ad about his mother's decision to continue a risky pregnancy, other football greats went in front of the cameras for a cause they believed in. In this 1989 video "Champions For Life," created for the antiabortion American Life League, members of the 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants--including Phil Simms and Mark Bavaro--offer their views on abortion.
By Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Next Sunday, when millions of people tune in to watch Super Bowl XLIV, they'll see a football star off the field, too. Tim Tebow, the University of Florida's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, is set to appear with his mother in a 30-second advertisement to be aired during the game. The spot, which has not been released, is said to feature Tebow, by all reports a humble young man who takes his faith seriously, and his mother telling the story of her decision 23 years ago to ignore medical advice and continue a risky pregnancy. Pam Tebow says that she had contracted amoebic dysentery, and her doctors feared that the medicine used to treat her illness might cause fetal deformity. The healthy and very successful Tim proved them wrong.

Pro-choice advocates were shocked when CBS appeared to violate internal policy and accepted this spot -- reportedly at a price of at least $2.5 million -- produced and paid for by Focus on the Family, a conservative antiabortion, anti-gay group. Though CBS says it has altered its policy, the networks have consistently rejected advocacy ads on controversial topics. The United Church of Christ was turned down by CBS in 2004 when it wanted to air a Super Bowl ad that celebrated diversity and welcomed gay and lesbian Christians to the denomination. And last year NBC rejected a spot from an antiabortion group that tried to use President Obama's life story to convey its message. The rules of the game seem to have changed without warning.

For abortion rights supporters, picking on Tim Tebow and his mom is not the way to go. Instead of trying to block or criticize the Focus on the Family ad, the pro-choice movement needs its own Super Bowl strategy. People want to be inspired, and abortion is as tough and courageous a decision as is the decision to continue a pregnancy. But the conversation is being led by Focus on the Family and its quarterback ambassador. It's a high-profile example of the savvy way the antiabortion movement has tailored its message.

Tebow is not the first football star to look into a camera and talk about birth, life and choices. In 1989, Wellington Mara, then the co-owner of the New York Giants, helped produce a nine-minute video featuring members of his 1987 Super Bowl championship team. Mara was on the board of directors of the anti-abortion American Life League, and the group widely distributed the video to churches, schools and pro-life organizations. It didn't air on broadcast television, much less on Super Bowl Sunday. But its extreme antiabortion language contrasts sharply with the warm and fuzzy -- and even inspirational -- message of the Tebow ad.

The 1989 video features tight end Mark Bavaro catching a touchdown pass and saying: "At the end of the game, all the Giants players left the field champions. Now with the abortion death squads allowed to run rampant through our country, I wonder how many future champions will be killed before they see the light of day."

George Martin, an African American defensive end, compares Roe v. Wade, which said "unborn babies have no rights," to the "shameful Dred Scott decision that said that black people have no rights."

And Phil Simms, the star quarterback who is now the NFL game analyst for CBS and who will be part of the broadcast next Sunday, also makes an appearance. He describes picking up a newspaper the day after the '87 Super Bowl victory and noticing a "little item" that got much less attention than the game: a report stating that "an average of 4,400 babies are killed every day by abortion." Simms concludes: "Suddenly, my statistics seemed very insignificant."

All Tim Tebow wants to do next Sunday, we are told, is let the world know that he's glad his mother had him and that he hopes other women make the same choice. Pam Tebow was indeed courageous and had the legal right to choose, a point the pro-choice movement can readily make in response to the ad.

Those opposed to legal abortions have learned a lot about reaching out to the many Americans who can't make up their minds about the issue. Many of these people don't want abortion to be illegal but believe that too many such procedures take place in this country. Conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family, have gotten that message. They know to save the fire and brimstone for their hardcore base; for Super Bowl Sunday, you appeal to people's hearts with a smiling baby -- or Tim Tebow and his mom. Presenting Americans with a challenge of personal sacrifice, especially if the person who has to sacrifice is a woman, is a convincing sell.

Women's and choice groups responding to the Tebow ad should take a page from the Focus on the Family playbook. Erin Matson, the National Organization for Women's new vice president, called the Tebow spot "hate masquerading as love." That kind of comment may play well in the choice choir, but to others, it makes no sense, at best; at worst, it's seen as the kind of stridency that reinforces the view that pro-choice simply means pro-abortion.

We have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward "pro-life" and "pro-choice." In 1995 Gallup asked respondents for the first time whether they considered themselves "to be pro-choice or pro-life." Only 33 percent took on the pro-life label. In 2009, 51 percent considered themselves pro-life, and pro-choice had dropped from a high of 56 percent to 44 percent.

Neither movement can take full credit or blame for the change. Science played a big role, making the fetus more visible. Today, the first picture in most baby books is the 12-week 3D ultrasound, and Grandma and Grandpa have that photo posted on the fridge. We read about successful fetal surgery; we don't read about women dying in pools of blood on their bathroom floors after botched abortions, as we did when the procedure was illegal.

Congress has also weighed in. The "partial birth" abortion ban was introduced in 1995, shifting attention from the choice movement's effective "who decides" message -- which became the key question after the Supreme Court's 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision -- to what the Catholic bishops had always wanted America to ask: "What is being decided?" From that point forward, abortions in the second half of pregnancy and graphic descriptions of how they are performed dominated coverage of the issue.

Such influences notwithstanding, there is no doubt that some segments of the antiabortion movement were more nimble and consistent in reaching out to the uncommitted than the choice advocates were. In the spring of 1992, the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation began a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with a "do the right thing" message -- similar to that in the Tebow spot. For five years, its "Life, What a Beautiful Choice" ads saturated media markets where public opinion on abortion was deeply divided.

NARAL Pro-Choice America followed with its "Choice for America" campaign, using symbols of freedom such as the U.S. flag to frame choice as a quintessential American value. "What's life without choice?" the ads asked. Tracking polls in the states where the spots aired showed an increase in identification with abortion rights, but donor support lagged, and the ads ended up on the shelf.

On the other side, though, the innovation continued. Groups such as Feminists for Life started out relatively small but invested heavily in reaching out to college students, talking not about making abortion illegal but about helping college women keep their babies. Their pro-life message wasn't exclusively anti-abortion; it was anti-capital-punishment, antiwar, for saving the whales, for not eating meat and for supporting mothers. It wasn't the mainstream of the antiabortion movement, but it had its appeal.

Today, all sorts of well-educated and progressive people are comfortable calling themselves pro-life. In the public eye, the term seems to encompass a broader and more moderate vision, not focused solely on what it opposes. That vision has suffered the occasional blow: Most recently, a man on the antiabortion fringe was convicted Friday of the murder, at a Kansas church, of George Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions. But the Scott Roeders of the world are not adding to the movement's base. The Super Bowl approach is doing that.

So here's our Super Bowl strategy for the choice movement. We'd go with a 30-second spot, too. The camera focuses on one woman after another, posed in the situations of daily life: rushing out the door in the morning for work, flipping through a magazine, washing dishes, teaching a class of sixth-graders, wheeling a baby stroller. Each woman looks calmly into the camera and describes her different and successful choice: having a baby and giving it up for adoption, having an abortion, having a baby and raising it lovingly. Each one being clear that making choices isn't easy, but that life without tough choices doesn't exist.

Frances Kissling is the former president of Catholics for Choice. Kate Michelman is the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

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