When CBS-TV decided to run an anti-abortion ad during the Superbowl there was a lot of talk about the propriety of airing highly polarizing advocacy advertising in such a highly visible media slot. There has been less talk about the content of the ad beyond the obvious fact it was making an implied argument against abortion. Since I wrote a pro abortion post yesterday I was thinking about the issue and thought I’d revisit the ad from a different point of view, the weird (but common) anti-abortion counterfactual argument.
First a brief summary of the ad. Tim Tebow is a talented college football player who won the Heisman trophy. He is also an in-your-face militant evangelical Christian. The ad was made by the far right anti-abortion group, Focus on the Family:
He was the first sophomore in history to win a Heisman trophy. He was the first college football player both to rush and pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. Last year, he led his college team, the Florida Gators, to their second national championship in three years. At 6 feet 3 inches and 245 pounds, Tim Tebow may go down in history as the greatest college football player who ever lived.
And to think none of that would have happened if not for a decision his mother made nearly 23 years ago.
That is the message of a controversial new ad starring Tebow and his mother, Pam. Paid for by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, the ad tells the story of Bob and Pam Tebow, who was pregnant with their fifth child when the couple travelled to the Philippines on a missionary trip.
While there, Pam contracted amoebic dysentery and the medicines used for her recovery threatened her unborn fetus. Doctors advised her to abort the fetus. Pam ignored their advice and gave birth on Aug. 14, 1987, to a baby boy. That boy was Tim Tebow. (Brinda Adhikari, ABC News)
Reading this it all seems rather logical and somewhat extraordinary. We immediately accept that if Ms. Tebow had aborted her pregnancy because of the risk of a major congenital malformation, then Tim Tebow wouldn’t have grown to be a talented football player who thinks he knows what’s right for other people. It is a classic counterfactual. It says that if the world had been completely different than it actually was, then the way things would have turned out would also be different, certainly for Tim Tebow, who wouldn’t exist in that alternate universe.
Tim Tebow decided to make this very personal, so let me do the same. My parents were rarely apart, but sometime in 1941 my father journeyed to a medical meeting. I think it may have been in Cincinnati. My brother and sister were 9 and 11 at the time. He was only gone a couple of days but when he returned my mother was very happy to see him. Nine months later I was born. Now if my father had not gone to that medical meeting, I wouldn’t exist. Life is full of things like that. Let me make it sharper. If he had stopped to read the paper after dinner, the specific little swimmer that got there first might not have been one with the Y chromosome but one with an X chromosome. Then there would have been no little boy baby born that later grew up to be me. I wouldn’t exist. Indeed, that kind of contingency is inherent in the reproductive process. If Mr. and Ms. Tebow had conceived him in a different position (OK, I know they were missionaries but this is a hypothetical), maybe there would not have been any little Tim at all or maybe little Tim would be little Tessa and not a Heisman trophy winner.
Or maybe it would have been a different little Tim, one with enough inborn ability for seeing the world through another’s eyes that he wouldn’t be such a self-righteous prig who thinks he knows what’s best for people whose lives he doesn’t know and can’t imagine.