SCORE A RESOUNDING 10 POINTS on the emotional richter scale for the antiabortion forces that have produced a film called "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" The film was aired Tuesday on Channel 7, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. -- prime time -- with no commercial interruptions after the Hosanna Ministries, according to Channel 7, raised $30,000 to buy the air time. The event, according to Channel 7's station manager, James Baoz, is part of the station's effort to get public affairs programming with impact. It certainly seems to have succeeded.
There is nothing simple about the issues Hosanna Ministries and Channel 7 have raised in the airing of this film. This is an antiabortion movie of the first order, one that links abortion with infanticide and euthanasia of both the young and the old. We see people born with severe defects who plead for their right to live. we see the process taken to the absurd when a couple shops in the supermarket for the perfect baby. Narrators talk of a "monstrous world" that tolerates the termination of inconvenient lives. The consensus of our society, we are told, is no longer a Judeo-Christian one but a humanistic one with man at the center rather than God. Such a society tolerates the degree of selfishness that makes abortion tolerable.
The film is nothing if not slick. We travel with the narrators all the way from concentration camps, to the shores of Sodom (where thousands of dolls have come to rest on the shore while the narrator describes saline abortion techniques). To the thump-thump of a fetal heartbeat, we get a tour of the Supreme Court which in 1973 ruled most abortions were legal, and we are warned that that decision could be used to justify euthenasia of older people. Us.
Now what, you might ask, is this propaganda masquarading as public affairs programming doing on television with no rebuttal from the other side? That is what the people who are lobbying to keep abortion legal want to know.
Boaz says the station has gotten a lot of heat for airing the movie and that everyone is missing the story, which is that here, finally, we have a television station that is willing to take public affairs programming out of the studio debate format and put it into a physical perspective. "TV networks have not been dealing with sensitive subjects on the air," says he. Certainly, "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" was the most arresting presentation of the abortion issue to come along in years, but let it never be mistaken for a balanced debate. "First they said they were going to air it in order to open up the marketplace of ideas," sayd Marguerite Beck-rex, of the National Abortion Rights Action League, "but what they did was let somebody use their station to market a point of view that they want to have affect the political climate so a constitutional amendment [banning abortions] can come about."
"What they didn't show you on that film," says Kathy bonk, director of the Media Project for the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund, "is women who have died in back alley abortions, women who have been sterilized, women who have had a lifetime of pain because they've had children they could do nothing with but institutionalize. And to compare a surgical operation, which is what an abortion is, to the Holocaust in Germany, where it wasn't a question of choice, is appalling."
Boaz says his stations's handling of the episode was "immaculate." He says the legal department reviewed the film and the research departement reviewed it for accuracy. "You didn't see what was cut," he said. Well obviously not. On the other hand, I did see and hear a doctor, who was a narrator, say that "in the fifth month the baby's movements are so strong they are being constantly felt by his mother," which tells me among other things that he has never been pregnant. If he exaggerates the level of fetal movement, what else is he exaggerating? How accurate was his description of abortion that combined techniques used in two different kinds of procedures? As Belita Cowan, executive director of the National Women's Health Network asked, how do we know the medical information is reliable?
We don't. Nor do we know very much about the principal players in the film, who include a Francis Schaeffer who is identified in the film as a theologian who has been studying human ethics for 45 years. But who is he really? Where does he come from? Where are his headquarters? Where is he getting his money? What is Hosanna Ministries?
None of this surfaced on Channel 7. Whatever independent, objective or -- dare I say it? -- journalistic standards we might expect in public affairs programming were not addressed at all on the air. If television stations are going to allow special interest groups to buy air time to broadcast propaganda, what kind of obligation do they have for insuring the accuracy of material that goes out over publicly owned airwaves?
Channel 7 is planning to live up to its fairness and equal time obligations, according to Boaz, although it probably would have been a lot better to have the two sides of the issue aired at least in the same year. But if it is going to go shopping in the marketplace of ideas for public affairs programming, it might want to pay attention to another rule we have set up to protect consumers in the supermarket.
It's called truth in labeling.