It’s “the No. 1 preventable cause of death in America.” The 400,000 lives it cuts short every year are “more lives lost than from automobile accidents, alcohol abuse, illegal drugs, AIDS, murder and suicide combined.”

That’s why Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., fought for more than a decade for legislation giving the federal government “broad authority to regulate the sale, distribution and advertising” of a product that kills a third of its users. And as Kennedy lay dying in June 2009, President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act into law, saying that the bill would “force these companies to more clearly and publicly acknowledge the harmful and deadly effects of the products they sell.”

Every smoking-related death is a tragedy. But it’s still not the No. 1 preventable cause of death in America. Abortion is. More to the point, the product called abortion simply is a “harmful and deadly effect.”

The U.S. doesn’t advertise tobacco on television. The U.S. doesn’t advertise abortion either, but that could change very swiftly.

History was made on May 24 when the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 began broadcasting an ad for Marie Stopes International. “If you’re late for your period, you could be pregnant,” viewers are told. “If you’re pregnant and not sure what to do, Marie Stopes International can help.”

How does MSI, the British equivalent of Planned Parenthood, hope to “help”? Guess. MSI received more than 30 million pounds last year from the National Health Service for performing 65,000 abortions, accounting for around a third of all abortions in the U.K. Globally, MSI reported performing 920,000 abortions in 43 countries last year, up 56% over 2008.

Business is booming. Why, then, do MSI executives feel the need to advertise on television? In the words of CEO Dana Hovig, to “encourage people to talk about abortion more openly and honestly.”

We wonder what the public backlash would be if Philip Morris USA suggested running television ads for Marlboro to encourage people to talk about smoking more openly and honestly.

But that discussion was what Focus on the Family’s Super Bowl ad featuring Tim and Pam Tebow was designed to promote. The National Organization for Women’s Erin Matson didn’t think it did: “This ad is frankly offensive,” she said. “It is hate masquerading as love. It sends a message that abortion is always a mistake.”

There’s a deeper difference, too: Both Focus on the Family and MSI are nonprofit charities. In fact, that’s the loophole that permitted MSI’s advertisements: For-profit abortion businesses are banned from advertising their services on U.K. television. But follow the money: Only one of the two charities doesn’t stand to make a cent from its advocacy.

“Abortion is not a consumer service,” a spokesman for the English bishops said on May 20. “To allow the broadcasting advertising of abortion-referral services is, in effect, to allow the exploitative promotion of these services and is not in the interests of the health or psychological well-being of women.”

The entire point of advertising is to send a message. It’s in the public interest to send the right message. For better or worse, advertising and the media spend more time educating our children each week than they spend in school. That’s why we reported in these pages in 2008 of a study which discovered that sexually active teenagers who viewed the most sexual content on television were nearly twice as likely to get pregnant or get a girlfriend pregnant. “The media environment that children are exposed to has an impact on them,” Dan Isett of the Parents Television Council told us then. “The scientific data backs up what people already instinctively know.”

There’s little we can do — short of turning down the volume or turning off the television — to stop our kids from being inundated with ads for condoms, Viagra and contraceptive patches, with their embarrassingly explicit obligatory medical warnings.

Over time, we become inured. Sexual matters are so cheapened in our society that there’s a product for you no matter what problem you have, be it erectile dysfunction or an inconvenient pregnancy. The consequences of this catastrophe for the soul of America dwarf the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for the Gulf of Mexico. In vain can we expect the FCC to plug the poison gushing from this leak? blogger Pat Archbold mused that television ads for abortion should “reveal that abortion can lead to loss of fertility, long-term psychological trauma, depression and even death. Truth is not friendly to the abortion industry.” Or maybe the FCC will require the alcohol ad mantra “When you drink, please drink responsibly” to be echoed here: “When you abort your unborn child, please do it responsibly.”

There is another solution, of course. When one company is being outpromoted by another, it responds with its own ad campaign.

“We impose nothing, yet we propose ceaselessly,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his homily at the final Mass of his trip to Portugal last month. That’s the call to the New Evangelization that he repeated constantly during his trip: to live our mission as witnesses “proposing” the truth. That truth is on our side. As Pat said, it isn’t friendly to the abortion industry.

The more we talk about the reality of abortion, the better. The more the public sees 4-D ultrasound images of unborn children, the better. The more people hear about abortion’s harmful effects on women, the better.

Pope Benedict’s words are designed to spur Catholics into action: “We must overcome the temptation to restrict ourselves to what we already have, or think we have, safely in our possession: it would be sure death in terms of the Church’s presence in the world. The Church, for that matter, can only be missionary, in the outward movement of the Spirit.”

So maybe the Pope would say that ad catchphrase applies to us too: “When you have the truth, please proclaim it responsibly.”

So let’s publicize abortion.

Maybe we can “force these companies to more clearly and publicly acknowledge the harmful and deadly effects of the products they sell.”