The grisly truth about the Super Bowl abortion ad.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 1 2010 8:06 AM

The Invisible Dead

The grisly truth about the Super Bowl abortion ad.

Also in Slate, Jason Fagone explains the real meaning of the pro-life Tim Tebow commercial

Tim Tebow. Click image to expand.
Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow, the college football hero and Heisman Trophy winner, won't be in next Sunday's Super Bowl. But he's already one of its stars. Focus on the Family, an interest group opposed to abortion, will air a 30-second commercial featuring Tebow and his mother, Pam. According to the group's press release, the Tebows "will share a personal story centered on the theme of 'Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life.' "

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The story, apparently, is about Tim's birth in 1987, when his parents were missionaries in the Philippines. According to Pam's account in the Gainesville Sun, she contracted amoebic dysentery and went in a coma shortly before the pregnancy. To facilitate her recovery, she was given heavy-duty drugs. Afterward, doctors told her the fetus was damaged. They diagnosed her with placental abruption, a premature separation of the placenta from the uterine wall. They predicted a stillbirth and recommended abortion.

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But Pam was against abortion, and she had faith in God. She refused. Today, her reward is a healthy, athletic, stellar son. "I've always been very [pro-life] because that's the reason I'm here, because my mom was a very courageous woman," Tim told reporters last week. That's the prescribed moral of the story: Choose life. Dave Andrusko, the editor of National Right to Life News, puts it eloquently: "This amazing young man is able to share his many gifts because, and only because, Pam Tebow said no to abortion and yes to life."

Pam's story certainly is moving. But as a guide to making abortion decisions, it's misleading. Doctors are right to worry about continuing pregnancies like hers. Placental abruption has killed thousands of women and fetuses. No doubt some of these women trusted in God and said no to abortion, as she did. But they didn't end up with Heisman-winning sons. They ended up dead.

Being dead is just the first problem with dying in pregnancy. Another problem is that the fetus you were trying to save dies with you. A third problem is that your existing kids lose their mother. A fourth problem is that if you had aborted the pregnancy, you might have gotten pregnant again and brought a new baby into the world, but now you can't. And now the Tebows have exposed a fifth problem: You can't make a TV ad.

On Sunday, we won't see all the women who chose life and found death. We'll just see the Tebows, because they're alive and happy to talk about it. In the business world, this is known as survivor bias: Failed mutual funds disappear, leaving behind the successful ones, which creates the illusion that mutual funds tend to beat market averages. In the Tebows' case, the survivor bias is literal. If you're diagnosed with placental abruption, you have the right to choose life. But don't be so sure that life is what you'll get.

Placental abruption is rare. The detachment from the uterine wall can range from partial to total. By most accounts, it occurs in fewer than 1 percent of pregnancies. The more broadly it's diagnosed, the less fatal it is on average, since the subtlest cases are also the least dangerous.

In 2001, the American Journal of Epidemiology published an analysis of 7.5 million births that took place in the United States in 1995 and 1996. Abruption was documented in 46,731 of these pregnancies. Six percent of normal pregnancies produced babies with birth weights low enough to risk long-term health damage. Nearly half the abrupted pregnancies produced such babies. Ten percent of normal pregnancies ended in premature births; most abrupted pregnancies ended that way. In normal pregnancies, the perinatal mortality rate—death of the fetus after 20 weeks gestation, or death of the baby in its four weeks after birth—was less than 1 percent. In abrupted pregnancies, the rate was roughly 12 percent. If the total number of abrupted pregnancies in the United States in those two years was 46,731, then the number of fetuses and babies killed by placental abruption was 5,570.

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