Pro-Life Takes on Pop Culture

What the Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad says about the state of the abortion debate—and what it doesn’t.

Sunday marks the date of Super Bowl XLIV, the nation's most anticipated sports event of the year.  While much of the buzz has focused on the New Orleans Saints heading to the Super Bowl for the first time ever, this major achievement was almost overshadowed by a completely different milestone.

Conservative group Focus on the Family ( persuaded CBS to revise its long-standing policy against controversial ads and purchased one of the $2.3 million dollar Super Bowl ad slots for a commercial featuring Heisman trophy-winning college football star Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam Tebow.  The ad won’t be released until it airs on Sunday, but according to reports, the Tebows will share the story of Tim's complicated birth in the Philippines: Pam Tebow, a Christian missionary, was pregnant with Tim in 1987 when she contracted a condition for amoebic dysentery.  According to her story, she was advised to abort the fetus, but instead "chose life" and brought Tim Tebow into the world.  While women's groups have protested the airing of a pro-life ad during Superbowl Sunday (and other groups have cast doubt on Pam Tebow's story, considering the abortion has been a criminal offense in the Philippines for close to a century), the most interesting effect of Tebow-gate is how the pro-life movement has learned to harness the power of pop culture and mainstream media.

The last time pro-lifers attempted to combine athletes and a Christian message, the campaign specifically targeted other church groups and believers in the cause.  The Washington Post recently resurrected a video from 1989 called "Champions for Life," featuring appeals from New York Giants players, with a heavy focus on religion.  One of the players stares at the screen, intoning, "The sign of the cross can be the symbol for many things.   I use it now in prayer for the condemned unborn," before dropping his head and crossing himself.  Another player hoists his son onto his shoulders, who carefully replies, "I love you Dad. It's great to be alive."

While the video comes off as highly scripted and heavy-handed in its message, it didn't matter considering the sympathetic audience.  However, over the last two decades, religious groups have worked on honing their messages to fit in more with a secular society.  While this change has been subtle, and often focused on measures like abstinence-only education, our culture has begun to shift to be more receptive to a pro-life message.

During the 2008 election cycle, Sarah Palin's folksy, whimsical manner won over voters across America.  Part of her appeal was her heavy embrace of the pro-life movement.  During the campaign, she referred often to her son Trig, who was born with Down's Syndrome.  Palin found support by voicing her insecurities about the pregnancy and raising a special needs child.  However, she never missed a chance to reinforce her pro-life beliefs.  When Trig was born, Palin issued a statement saying:

Trig is beautiful and already adored by us. We knew through early testing he would face special challenges, and we feel privileged that God would entrust us with this gift and allow us unspeakable joy as he entered our lives. We have faith that every baby is created for good purpose and has potential to make this world a better place. We are truly blessed.

Later, when the news broke that Palin's oldest daughter, Bristol, was expecting at the tender age of 17, Palin immediately went on the offensive to ensure that pro-life principles would be reflected in the media narrative.  After positioning Bristol to speak out in support of abstinence-only education and against teen pregnancy, she set her sights on a larger media coup.  On January 25th, the popular tabloid In Touch granted Sarah and Bristol Palin the cover story, complete with large text: "We're Glad We Chose Life."  The story focused on the two women and their children, with quotes like “our babies brought us closer.” Occasionally the women would discuss the trials of parenting, but the core idea of choosing life came up time and time again in the article.

And signs show that the push to put a less preachy, more friendly face on the cause may be working: for the first time since 1995, more Americans identify as pro-life than pro-choice. Considering this shift in societal attitudes toward abortion, it should come as no surprise that Focus on the Family saw a golden opportunity to put their message out in front of the millions of cheering fans at the Super Bowl.

Yet, this is not yet a victory.  Palin's In Touch cover bombed at newsstands, and the percentage of those identifying as pro-life over pro-choice is slim enough to fall into the margin of error. For all of the controversy generated by the Tebow ad, most people watching the Super Bowl will probably be more concerned with a different question: Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?"