It's often said that conservative groups win the mainstream media battles by howling the loudest. Feminists and women's groups are trying mightily to change that by fighting CBS airing an anti-abortion ad during the Super Bowl, with varying strategies.
There are two main approaches: Focusing on CBS's decision to air the ad after opaque changes to its policies on advocacy policies, and attempting to reverse it; and getting into the substance of the ad and what has been reported (lots of it murky) about Pam Tebow's individual decision. Both have their own complications.
The risk, of course, is associating feminism with the shutting down of a debate or "silencing" of anti-choice positions. Still, CBS is a commercial organization that makes business decisions based on, among other things, the demands of its audience, and not a government entity.
What about the particular message of Ms. Tebow's experience? (For those unfamiliar with this story, Tebow is the mother of football player Tim Tebow, who also stars in the ad.) The Center for Reproductive Rights has pointed out that abortion is illegal in the Philippines, and has been for over a hundred years:
Women are punished with imprisonment between two to six years if they obtain [an abortion]. Doctors and midwives who directly cause or assist a woman in an abortion face six years imprisonment and may have their licenses suspended or revoked.
Because of the severity of the Philippines law, abortion is underground, making it unsafe, potentially deadly and highly stigmatized. Every year, more than 500,000 women in the country try to terminate their pregnancies. In 2008 alone, criminal abortions resulted in the deaths of at least 1000 women and 90,000 more suffered complications.
Attorney Gloria Allred (pictured) has taken up the issue of Tebow's story and run with it. In a video statement given to RadarOnline (?), Allred suggests that the apparent inconsistencies in the account might mean the ad constitutes false advertising under federal regulations:
"Does this commercial for mandatory motherhood contain corroboration that Pam's doctors suggested that she commit a crime of having an illegal abortion in the Philippines? If the ad omits the facts that abortion was illegal at that time and place, as it was and is in the Philippines… I'm sure that neither CBS and nor Mr. Moonves, as its president, would want to put an ad that might constitute illegal or misleading advertising, even if it meant millions of dollars in profit."
Meanwhile, NOW is going head-to-head with Sarah Palin on the topic. Palin posted on her Facebook page,
My message to these groups who are inexplicably offended by a pro-woman, pro-child, pro-life message airing during the Super Bowl: please concentrate on empowering women, help with efforts to prevent unexpected pregnancies, stay consistent with your message that for too long women have been made to feel like sex objects in our ‘modern' culture and that we can expect better in 2010."
So basically, Sarah Palin wants NOW to focus on whenever she doesn't like the way a picture of herself is used on the cover of Newsweek. And so far, her strategy for preventing "unexpected pregnancies" seems to consist of abstinence; unclear what, under this logic, the choices are for married women except the one Palin made herself.
"The goal of the Focus on the Family ad is not to empower women. It's to create a climate in which Roe v. Wade can be overturned...There are always going to be women who need abortions. In this country, one in three women will have an abortion."
"Focus on the Family has cynically set it up so they can say anyone who disagrees with airing this ad is disrespecting one woman and her choice. NOW respects every woman's right to plan her own family and insists our laws do the same."
The last point gets to the heart of the dilemma pro-choice organizations face in winning this rhetorical battle. The anti-choice focus on individual women — Pam Tebow, anyone named Palin — threatens to box pro-choice activists into a corner where they are made to appear as if they think those women should have had abortions. That these women were able to make what they felt was the right choice for them — a word that indicates a luxury of options — under is a subtler point to get across. It's one that Amanda Marcotte, among others, has been trying to advance:
To argue that because woman A is happy with choice A, woman B should be happy with choice A is to say that all women are exactly alike. "All women are alike" is a standard sexist assumption, and so people will buy into it. But by the measurement of their own arguments, you can see they don't believe this—-they're admitting that different women make different choices, and that therefore different women are, gosh darnit (like Sarah Palin would say), different. And so maybe the same exact choice is not right, since different people have different needs and desires.
Because of feminism, the right wing has to at least pay lip service to the idea that women are a diverse group and are also moral actors. Since they admit that women are human beings, we should seize the moment and point out that therefore women deserve freedom and dignity.
This morning, Marcotte lamented that the feminist response has focused on shutting down the ad rather than arguing with its substance:
I do wish that more of the feminist response had been centered around the inherent contradiction of anti-choicers celebrating choice, and less in demanding that CBS not run the ad. There's a strong possibility that the more Focus on Family does stuff like this, the closer they get to bankruptcy, after all. But more to the point, instead of playing the role of censor in their fund-raising appeals, we could continue to point out that they're buying into the pro-choice framework, and that if women like Pam Tebow don't have a choice, they don't get to be heroes. Just victims.
Center for Reproductive Rights Raises Questions to CBS about Tebow Story, College Football Star Featured in Super Bowl Ad [CRR]
What Does Football Have To Do With Abortion Again? [RH Reality Check]
Tim Tebow Confirms Super Bowl Ad About Pro-Life Values, Defends Showing It [LifeNews]
Gloria Allred Threatens CBS For Allowing Tim Tebow Anti-Abortion Ad [RadarOnline]
NOW Tackles Palin Over Tebow Ad [Politico]
Tim Tebow Ad Thought [Pandagon]
Focusing On The Tebow Family [Religion Dispatches]