Thanks to the wonders of modern television, any of us can be a voyeur. We can (with a little imagination) keep track of steamy adulterous relationships, we can watch movies about incest, we can follow the stormy course of homosexual relationships, we can watch Sue Ellen battle the bottle and, when she's not doing that, bed-hop her way across Dallas, and we can watch female characters deal with unintended pregnancies. But there is one final taboo.
One subject that can't be discussed. At least not during commercials.
It's that terribly controversial subject known in polite company as "contraception."
Contraception, as defined by Webster's, is "the intentional prevention of fertilization of the female ovum," and there are a variety of methods for doing this, some much more effective than others. That's one of the points that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is trying to get across in a nationwide campaign it is launching to prevent the 3.3 million unintended pregnancies that occur in America each year.
The drive was announced by Dr. Luella Klein, past president of ACOG, who said that when she became president she made the point that "there is much fear, doubt and confusion in women's minds about the risks and safety of presently available contraceptives." Reasons for this, she said, include scare stories that highlight risks of certain forms of contraception, and the failure of physicians to educate the public about the safety of contraception versus the risks of pregnancy.
ACOG subsequently commissioned a Gallup poll of 1,036 women and 520 men ages 18 and over to find out what they knew about contraception, childbearing risks, and the risks of unintended pregnancy, and to find out what they thought about sex education and contraception for teen-agers.
The poll supported Klein's belief: 76 percent of the women and 62 percent of the men polled felt there are substantial risks in using birth control pills; 18 percent of the women and 19 percent of the men felt that using no birth control was as effective as the Pill. While the risks of dying in childbirth are greater than the risks of taking the Pill, only 16 percent of the women and 22 percent of the men knew that to be the case. When asked about the effectiveness of various forms of birth control, those polled came close to accuracy only with regards to natural family planning.
Three quarters of those polled believed sexually active teen-agers should have access to contraceptive services, with more than 60 percent of them saying the parents should be notified. Sex education was resoundingly endorsed, with 90 percent favoring it, 81 percent saying it should be taught by the time children are in junior high school, and 54 percent saying it should be taught by elementary school. Six percent said it should not be taught in schools at all.
Armed with evidence that there was, indeed, widespread confusion, apprehension and misinformation about contraception, and that there also was widespread public support for sex education, ACOG developed a public information campaign. The campaign includes free distribution of a book called "Facts" that people can obtain by calling a toll-free number: 1-800-INTENDS.
ACOG then contacted the four major television networks to see if they would include information about the program and the hot line in their public service announcements. Morton Lebow, public information officer for ACOG, said that CBS and ABC refused, saying the issue of contraception is "controversial." ABC went so far as to say the use of the word is controversial. NBC said the program didn't meet its standards, although Lebow said it was unclear what the standards are. CNN, alone, agreed to run the spots and is doing so now -- which says something for the value of an innovative fourth network.
"Television can affect public behavior as almost no other medium, and it does," said Dr. Klein. "It sets the tone for much of American life including our sexual attitudes and behavior. Through its dramatic shows, situation comedies and soap operas there appears to be a preoccupation with sex -- that is, up until the commercial break. Then we get two to four minutes of purity until we get back to the various bedroom scenes and situations -- without one word about the responsibilities of sex and the responsible use of contraception."
The TV spots developed for ACOG, she said, do not encourage sex. The spots, in English and Spanish, encourage people to become knowledgeable and responsible about birth control.
That's really not a very controversial idea.