The Abortion Debate: Now Showing At a Football Game, Billboard, Twitter, Or a Clinic Near You!

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On Super Bowl Sunday, CBS ran a television commercial by
conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family causing an
incredible backlash throughout the pro-choice and progressive
communities across the country. By viewing this particular
advertisement, CBS broke its own policy of not permitting
“advocacy ads” about controversial issues during the most
watched program in our country, the Super Bowl. Instead,
CBS worked with Focus on the Family to craft a TV appropriate
anti-abortion story about Tim Tebow, the all-American
football player, and his mother Pam, who chose to carry a lifethreatening
pregnancy to full-term rather than terminate it for
the sake of her own health and the health of her baby. The
presence of a message aimed at stigmatizing abortion and
promoting a “pro-life” agenda during this national televised
event blurred the lines between sports, entertainment, and
abortion within the media landscape.
If it was not for the fact that CBS had rejected other
advertisements due to their “controversial” content, this ad
may have run less noticed. CBS has rejected ads from the
United Church for Christ and, providing
spiritual and dating services to the gay community, as well
as, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals.) The unwillingness to air the ads of progressive
organizations, along with Focus on the Family, a
conservative, anti-choice Christian organization, resulted
in a backlash against CBS by feminist and social justice
organizations who nicknamed CBS the “Christian Broadcasting
System” and “Commercially Broadcasting Sexism”
network in the weeks leading up to the game.
Several counter-campaigns emerged that sought to reframe
and clarify the issue of “choice” in our country. Planned Parenthood
launched an internet-based advertisement featuring
former college and professional football player Sean James and
Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner. Gloria Steinem, a prominent
feminist leader, joined guests at the Women’s Media Center for
a live video-stream called “Jockocracy Sexism Watch” during
the Super Bowl to critique on the overall nature of event.
World Can’t Wait, a social justice organization based in New
York City, promoted their one-hour YouTube film, “Abortion,
Morality, and the Liberation of Women”, as an alternative
viewing event “from the front-lines of the struggle for abortion
rights.” These groups, among many, put pressure on CBS to
not air this ad from an “anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-equality,
and homophobic” organization.
When the Tebow advertisement finally ran, the feared
message was surprisingly subtle. Rather than a blatant attack
on abortion, the ad’s fuzzy, feel-good message about family
left many wondering, what was all the fuss about? After the
ad aired, the Burma Group, Christian research organization,
polled 1000 viewers and found that only a minority (38%)
understood the anti-abortion message. 20% were unable to
guess the main message and 19% thought the message was
about the importance of family. Yet, 62% were aware of the
pre-game controversy over the commercial. Ironically, the
pro-choice movement’s objection to the ad likely provided a
clearer articulation of the anti-abortion message than the ad
itself. As well, the critique of the Tebow ad by feminist organizations
turned out to be the somewhat humorous gesture
of Tim Tebow “talking” his mother. Terry O’Neill, from the
National Organization for Women (NOW), told the LA
Times, “I am blown away at the celebration of the violence
against women in it. That’s what comes across to me even
more strongly than the anti-abortion message. I myself am a
survivor of domestic violence, and I don’t find it charming. I
think CBS should be ashamed of itself.”
Less than a month after the Super Bowl, another antichoice
controversy materialized in Georgia with connections
to CBS. This state-wide billboard campaign features a closeup
photograph of an African American baby peering back at
the viewer alongside the text “Black children are an endangered
species” and the website “”
Georgia Right to Life, along with a coalition of national black
leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King’s niece, is accusing
Planned Parenthood of “racial genocide” on the basis that
African American women in Georgia have higher rates of
abortion and most clinics are located in urban centers. As
well, the early history of Planned Parenthood had close ties
to the eugenics movement. Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall,
who teaches women’s history and feminist thought at Spelman
College, told the New York Daily News, “To use racist
arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be antiabortion
is just disgusting.” Loretta Ross, of Sister Song, a
reproductive justice coalition of women of color, blames
higher abortion rates on the lack of reproductive health education
and access to contraception within the African-American
community. Yet, despite efforts from African American
activists in Georgia, as well as throughout the country, CBS
hasn’t wavered in its position to display the billboards.
Despite the mainstreaming pro-life messages via CBS, prolife
campaigns against women’s right to abortion will
inevitably continue. Rather than ask, how does the pro-choice
community respond to CBS and other corporate media outlets,
I wonder, how will organizations such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and NOW respond with their
own national campaigns that affirm a
women’s right to choose? Instead of battling
CBS at the national level, where might the
pro-choice movement focus their efforts in
reframing the debate? What does pro-active,
effective pro-woman, pro-choice media look
like? In short, two spaces exist that are perhaps
underutilized by the pro-choice movement
where women considering abortion
turn to—the Internet and the clinic itself.
A simple search for “abortion” images
through Google reveals a gallery of
grotesque, sensationalized images of aborted
fetuses. To cut through the visual rhetoric of
anti-abortion messages is difficult, but on
February 25, 2010, Angie Jackson, a Florida
woman facing an unwanted pregnancy, did
just that. After surviving serious health concerns
with her first pregnancy, Jackson
decided that as a mother with a young son,
she was unwilling and unable to endure a
second pregnancy. As a regular blogger with
a following, she released a video disclosure
about her upcoming medical abortion. She
Twittered her abortion as a personal account
to the experience for other women. “I’m not
trying to ignite a culture war,” she told ABCNews.
com “I’m just offering one person’s
personal experience and true story.” However,
her story is notable due to the level of
backlash she has experienced. She told website
The Frisky, “I’ve just been astonished by
the level of hatred and death threats and
threats of violence against my son. It’s been a
very ugly side of people to see.” Perhaps, this
speaks to the effectiveness of her message, as
personal testimony is a powerful tool. The
Internet provides an almost limitless audience,
and unlike corporate controlled spaces
such as television and billboards, remains
available for telling personal and powerful
stories about abortion.
Clinics themselves present another public
space for pro-choice messaging campaigns.
Currently, organizations such as 40 Days for
Life and Operation Rescue occupy clinics to
protest abortion providers and provide “sidewalk
counseling” to women to deter them
from seeking abortion services. Other than
loosely organized “clinic defenders”, a national
pro-choice presence at clinics does not
exist. The 4000 Years for Choice campaign,
begun on the 37th anniversary of Roe v Wade
in January, 2010, attempts to refocus the
attention to clinics by celebrating the history
of abortion and contraception through a visual
postcard campaign to the most heavily
protested clinics across the country. As clinics
are often physically marginalized within communities,
this project calls to attention these
spaces and celebrates them within the context
of a new historical narrative.
Anti-abortion rhetoric will only continue,
and the reproductive rights community
needs to respond with campaigns that
address personal stories, spaces, and histories
in the daily spaces where women exist
when facing choices about their reproduction;
the privacy of their own homes at
their computers and at the clinic where
they will exercise their legal and human
rights in reproductive freedom. It is in
these grassroots spaces, rather than at the
national level, where our stories and choices
are needed.

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