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She Had a Choice!

Super Bowl Sunday will soon be upon us with all the attendant hype and – for some – excitement about the actual game.  Clevelanders long ago gave up on being a part of the big weekend any time soon, and moving to Chicago, it seems, has not made prospects any brighter.  Even for us, however, there is the annual speculation about innovative beer ads and, after the year of the famous “wardrobe malfunction,” always the prospect of some unexpected spectacle.  Maybe Lady Gaga will make an appearance this year!

The current buzz has nothing to do with beer, football, or half-time shows.  This year the pre-game conversation is about abortion.  The conservative Christian organization, Focus on the Family, will be airing a thirty second pro-life commercial.  The ad features collegiate football star Tim Tebow and his mother Pam.  During her pregnancy Pam became ill and the doctors, fearing the medication needed to save her life would cause fetal deformities, recommended that she terminate her pregnancy.  Pam decided to carry Tim to term and gave birth to a healthy baby who now is awaiting selection in a top round of the prestigious and lucrative NFL draft.

United Church of Christ leaders are crying foul, pointing out that in 2004 CBS refused to air its God is still speaking “Bouncer” commercial because of its alleged advocacy for marriage equality for gay and lesbian persons.  Why is Focus on the Family’s advocacy ad acceptable now, when the UCC’s ad was not?  Is there are double standard when it comes to presenting religiously based moral perspectives in the media?   Or does a recession make any ad revenue attractive enough to alter policies? UCC folk are justifiably suspicious. Apparently CBS has suggested that they would now welcome a UCC ad, but Director of Communication and CTS alumnus Ben Guess indicated the denomination would instead focus on raising money for Haiti relief rather than the over $2 million needed for a thirty second Super Bowls spot.

Pro-choice advocates are also enraged and, no doubt unnerved.  They know that the image of a happy, healthy, and wholesome Tim Tebow on the screen offers a compelling, albeit simplistic argument against abortion.  One could hardly find a better poster child for the pro-life movement which is badly in need of one in the aftermath of the trial of George Tiller’s killer in Wichita.

Pro-choice pastors willing to wade into these controversial waters this weekend will find themselves challenged.  But they have also been presented with a teachable moment.  What might a pastor say to his or her congregation this Sunday?  The anticipated happy mother-son image on the screen reminds us that the decision to have an abortion is inevitably fraught with profound moral ambiguity.  Nascent life in utero almost always bears the promise of life that can, with proper nurture and in spite of difficulties, be meaningful and rich.  While the pro-life movement often appears to focus its moral compass solely on the fetus, the pro-choice movement sometimes appears to focus its moral compass narrowly and solely on the mother.  Neither approach is honest or helpful.  There are children whose unplanned, unwanted or medically compromised births have been doorways into lives of suffering, terror, abuse, and abandonment.  But there are also stars like Tim Tebow able to compete and thrive because of decisions their mothers made years ago.  And there are countless children and adults with varying forms of disability who are able to enrich the lives of their families and communities because their parents made similar decisions either to give birth and raise their children or offer them for adoption.  Pro-choice advocates may find the Tebows’ ad simplistic and more than a little judgmental.  But it also makes us uneasy, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing because troubled pregnancies almost never present the individuals involved with a decision between an obvious right and a clear wrong.  Only the moral fundamentalists at either end of the spectrum assume that to be the case.  The vast majority of the rest of us bear the burden of moral uncertainty.  We labor with the knowledge that we might be wrong.   That makes our ethical choices incredibly difficult, laden with risk.  But it also is a strong argument in a religiously pluralistic culture for allowing those choices to be made.

Ironically the Tebows’ advertisement under the pro-life banner could be seen equally well as advocacy for choice.  The obvious fact, sometimes overlooked in this little controversy, is that Pam Tebow had a choice.  She was able to make an ethical decision.  The medical community did not impose its will on her.  Her husband did not force her to continue her pregnancy.  The state did not deny her the right to moral agency.  Majority religious perspectives did not determine her destiny or that of her son.  Perspectives and desires of family and loved ones, the informed counsel of physicians, religious values shaped by her faith community, and the broad parameters of law all contributed to her decision, but did not in the end rob her of her moral rights or absolve her of her moral responsibility.  She decided.  She had a choice.  That fact is worthy of celebration.  It should not be cause for denying that choice to others.

None of this resolves the question of whether a fetus, any fetus, is of such intrinsic and absolute worth that its protection should trump all other ethical considerations.  That debate continues.  In the absence of broad cultural consensus, some combination of reasonable protections for the fetus and the simultaneous and rigorous protection of broad space for responsible moral choice seems appropriate.  That combination apparently served Pam and Tim Tebow well.  Shouldn’t others be afforded the same privilege as well?

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