Networks air controversial ads -- Recent advertisements from Planned Parenthood regarding abortion

As the Supreme Court grapples this spring with a Pennsylvania case that could lead to an overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion, forces on both sides of the issue are turning up the heat. Television has become the latest battleground, as the opposing armies struggle to get their messages across on the air. The most controversial, from the pro- life side, are the ”pro-adoption” ads paid for by the Pennsylvania-based Arthur S. De Moss Foundation. Several cable networks, including Turner Broadcasting’s CNN, Headline News, TNT, and TBS, have aired the spots in the last month.

Now Planned Parenthood is crying foul, claiming that Turner has unfairly taken sides. According to the nation’s largest reproductive health care provider and its nonprofit ad agency, San Francisco-based Public Media Center, Turner refused last April to run two (out of four) pro-choice spots without an extra disclaimer — in addition to the sponsor ID at front and back — stating that these views were not the networks’. (Planned Parenthood then dropped the campaign.) The De Moss spots run with no such disclaimer.

”There is a double standard,” says Planned Parenthood’s acting president, David Andrews. ”Why should we pay good money to have our message go on the air as if it’s somehow questionable? De Moss is not being gagged at all.”

Turner chairman Ted Turner was unavailable for comment. But Steve Haworth, a CNN spokesman, admits that two Planned Parenthood spots aimed at state parental notification laws, which require a minor to have a parent’s permission for an abortion, were ”rejected on the basis of content.” In one ad, the mother of Becky Bell, an Indianapolis teenager who died in 1990 after a secret abortion, discusses her daughter’s death; in the other, a young woman faints in a telephone booth after having a botched abortion.

”We didn’t think you could accurately verify that [Bell] had died ‘because of the parental consent law,”’ Haworth says. ”The phone booth spot we felt was too graphic for our air.” But Haworth denies that Planned Parenthood was asked to run a special disclaimer. Though the major networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox — routinely refuse advocacy advertising under a ”controversial issues policy,” some cable networks — including Lifetime (one-third-owned by Capital Cities/ABC) and CNN — judge each spot on a case-by-case basis (see sidebar).

Lifetime also asked Planned Parenthood to add disclaimers to its spots (the organization refused), though it pulled the two De Moss ads when the network ”didn’t have a complete meeting of the minds with the De Moss Foundation.” CNBC also yanked them when employees complained about their anti-abortion line. In one De Moss ad, little plaid-skirted girls bound down the stairs of a private school; another girl, dressed as a cat for Halloween, plays on the front porch of her suburban home. ”All of these children have one thing in common,” says the voice-over. ”All of them were unplanned pregnancies, pregnancies that could have ended in abortion. But their parents toughed it out…” The tag line for both spots: ”Life. What a Beautiful Choice.”

Pro-choice groups have claimed the De Moss ads, which continue to run on Turner networks, are dangerously misleading since they subtly attack abortion while promoting adoption as the solution to unwanted pregnancy.

De Moss, which donates to causes like Campus Crusade for Christ, won’t discuss its activities. A spokeswoman says, ”These spots simply ask the question, ‘What could be more important than the right of someone to be born?”’

Tough question. But what about the right of one group to have the same access to the airwaves as another? When Herbert Chao Gunther, president of Public Media Center, called CNN to complain about the De Moss spots, he says, he was told the network would be happy to run ads from Planned Parenthood — though the network did not specifically say without disclaimers. The group is now producing a new $300,000 campaign in response to the De Moss ads. The De Moss Foundation just spent another $250,000 for a second month of Turner airtime.