National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Ad Blackout Helped Sink ‘Partial-Birth’ Ban in Maine

BY Josh Mercer

November 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/21/99 at 1:00 PM

 

AUGUSTA, Maine—First came the blackout. Then came the defeat.

Pro-lifers were shocked Nov. 2 when voters here by a 55% to 45% margin rejected a referendum to ban partial-birth abortion.

“I expected the ban to win,” said Marc Mutty, spokesman for the Portland Diocese. “We did detailed polling. We were up by 12 points a week-and-a-half before the vote. Then we started to nose-dive.”

The erosion in support, he acknowledged, resulted from the ability of abortion advocates to frame the debate in their favor and the inability of pro-lifers to effectively respond.

One thing that hurt the pro-life cause was the refusal by four major television stations to air any commercial that depicted or even described the partial-birth abortion procedure, Mutty said.

The virtual TV blackout on ads, along with the abortion supporters’ simple avoidance of talking about partial-birth abortion, were keys to the defeat, Mutty insisted. He said abortion supporters claimed that the referendum would make almost every abortion in Maine illegal.

“It's deception,” Mutty said of a last-minute ad campaign by abortion proponents. “They won't talk about the procedure.”

Joanne D‘Arcangelo, of Planned Parenthood of Maine, however, insisted that the ban “would have applied to many procedures.”

Asked by the Register if the ballot question only dealt with those abortions in which the fetus has been partially vaginally delivered, D‘Arcangelo said, “I'm not going to get into a discussion about the procedures.”

Mutty said that during a televised debate “the moderator asked, ‘Will you answer the question [about the procedure]?’ But they wouldn't.”

When pro-lifers tried to resort to TV ads to get their message out, they had reisistance from the four major stations, Mutty said.

“We even ran the concepts by them before production,” he said. “They wouldn't agree to our concepts. Anything with the partial-birth abortion procedure they refused.”

The decision by the stations left the pro-lifers with no vehicle to sufficiently respond to statements from abortion activists that the initiative would prohibit almost all abortions, Mutty said.

Steve Thaxton, station manager of Portland's WCSH-TV, defended his decision to cut an anti-abortion commercial from the air.

“We felt it would offend viewers,” he said. “The one spot was turned down for issues of taste.”

Gubernatorial Sympathy

Sympathy for the pro-lifers came from unusual corners, however. Pro-abortion Gov. Angus King lambasted the decision by the station and said that it should allow all views to be expressed in the “marketplace of ideas.”

Thaxton disagreed with the governor and defended his station's rights not to air the ads.

“The public does not understand the difference between advertising and news coverage,” he contended. “People feel they have a First Amendment right to advertising.

“There's a huge difference. About the ads — we're a privately held business. We have to deal with what is appropriate. The news coverage is about our rights and responsibilities as a member of the press.”

Mutty said a public television station was initially willing to host a forum to debate the commercial stations’ decisions.

“The public television station wanted to discuss this,” Mutty said. “They asked me to talk about this, but they canceled the show because the station managers refused to debate with me on this issue.”

Though he was invited to participate in the forum, Thaxton did not attend.

“I had a conflict and I didn't want to do it,” the TV manager said. “There's not enough airtime to explain the decision. I spent 45 to 60 minutes with viewers on the phone and they still didn't understand.”

Judy Horan, who as station manager of Bangor's WLBZ also refused to air a pro-life commercial, insisted that little would be gained from such a debate.

“After the election I thought the subject was pretty much covered. I didn't think anything else would be gained after the fact.”

Mutty speculated that another factor in the outcome of the referendum was that voters sometimes deceive themselves about partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which a baby is partially delivered and then stabbed in the skull before being dragged from his mother's womb.

“We told people about what's going on,” he recalled, “and they would say, ‘As if this actually happens in Maine!’

A ban on partial-birth abortions in Maine failed for the third time in four years, but it is not the only state that has dealt with the issue. Twenty-seven states have banned the procedure since 1996.

Courts have struck down or suspended the bans in all but eight states.

States That Have Banned Partial-Birth Abortions

Michigan South Dakota* Mississippi* Georgia South Carolina* Arkansas Arizona Montana Alaska

Indiana* Alabama Nebraska Tennessee* Rhode Island Louisiana Illinois New Jersey Iowa

Florida Idaho West Virginia Virginia* Kentucky Oklahoma* Wisconsin North Dakota* Missouri

States are listed in chronological order of bans.

* States with bans currently in effect.

(Source: National Right to Life Committee)