Blackballing Birth Control

A quarter of a century ago, every major television network was willing to run public service announcements (PSAs) promoting birth control. Now it's not quite so simple to get the message on the air. A new PSA campaign sponsored by Planned Parenthood has run into major stumbling blocks in its first target city: New York. NBC, ABC and Fox have all turned down the spots, while CBS remains undecided. "Birth control. Try it. It works." That's the PSA's innocuous message. One of the spots features lottery balls spinning and warns viewers not to rely on luck in avoiding pregnancy. In another, hands rip open a condom package; a voice-over observes "it's easier than putting on a diaper." The spots themselves are straightforward; getting them on the air is the challenge. "We have a policy not to air PSAs on either side of that issue," explains a press flack for NBC's New York affiliate. Apparently, this policy wasn't in effect a quarter of a century ago, when the three major networks first aired spots promoting birth control. The last time a birth control PSA ran on a major network was 1985. But today, when some 90 percent of women of childbearing age use birth control, New York City stations are balking. Says the NBC spokesperson: "There are groups that have problems with PSAs promoting birth control." One of the most vocal of these groups is the Family Research Council, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group headed by Gary Bauer, a former Reagan aide who recently helped Bob Dole hone his attack on Hollywood depravity. Last year, when the federally-funded Centers for Disease Control produced PSAs promoting condom use to prevent AIDS, Bauer was one of its loudest critics. According to his spokeswoman, Kristi Hamrick, the birth control PSAs encourage sexual activity. Airing them, she claims, will produce more unwanted pregnancies -- and more business for Planned Parenthood. "With one hand, [Planned Parenthood representatives] preach contraceptive sex. With the other they make money from abortions," she says. "Their motives ... might be profit." So far, this tortured logic has not stopped television executives across the country from expressing interest in the new PSAs. In Seattle, ABC has already requested copies of the spots. And in some parts of Texas, all three major networks have given the green light. As Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Sarah Di Troia observes, stations outside of New York, where the major networks have their headquarters, tend to be less conservative because they don't operate under the watchful eyes of network executives. And so, despite the initial difficulties, many family planning advocates are hopeful about the campaign. "We're not talking about abortion," Di Troia explains. "People have very set ideas on that issue. But birth control is a little stickier. To take a stand against birth control is to take a stand against sex, and that's not a very popular position."

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