SAN DIEGO — Whether it’s Focus on the Family’s Tim Tebow Superbowl ad or the new online drama series “Bump+,” recent pro-life efforts have drawn criticism from some pro-life groups and individuals who feel that the projects don’t go far enough.
“I am disappointed, and feel that pro-lifers were sucked into a controversy that really wasn’t there,” said Monica Migliorino Miller, director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, about the Tebow ad. “If we judge the ad on its own merits, it is not an anti-abortion ad.”
Similar complaints were leveled at the Web-based TV series “Bump+.”
The production company Yellow Line Studio launched its drama series about crisis pregnancies on the 37th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. The fictional series, which is available for viewing exclusively on the Internet, tells the stories of three women caught in crisis pregnancies.
The executive producer, Dominic Iocco, came up with the idea early last year. Iocco wanted to use the Internet to get people on both sides of the abortion issue talking.
“The goal was to start a conversation about a topic that, prior to now, has been polarizing, with people on either side shouting at one another,” said Maggie Mahrt, co-director of the series and an actress in it.
Several of those involved cited President Obama’s University of Notre Dame speech, in which he challenged people to have a conversation on the topic, as the inspiration for the show.
In “Bump+,” which airs Mondays and Thursdays at BumptheShow.com and on YouTube, the stories are told of three “expectant mothers.” None of the women is actually pregnant — everyone involved is a professional actor. The audience is encouraged to comment on each episode and share personal stories. The series will wrap up March 15.
Already, the pilot episode has generated more than 14,000 views. The website is receiving 6,000 to 7,000 people on its busiest days.
The series was produced at a cost of $30,000, all raised through private investors. Everyone who worked on the production did so without pay, except for the actors. The budget went toward building a doctor’s office set on a soundstage, paying actors and production costs.
“No matter how adamant viewers are in their beliefs, we felt the fictional world would allow them to let down their guard a bit,” said Matt Salisbury, head writer for the series.
“The series is aimed at those who haven’t made up their minds,” said Iocco. “We really wanted to start this project from the perspective of telling honest stories and listening.”
“There were a lot of professional actors from Los Angeles who were involved who were not on the same page,” said Mahrt.
Some of the controversy surrounding “Bump+” came from news stories. A Jan. 31 Washington Post column by Kathleen Parker had a headline describing the show as a “game show,” which it is not. The headline read: “Turning abortion into an online game show.” She also says that “the decision to abort or not to abort is up to you, dear audience.” That is not correct.
A subsequent Fox News story also originally described the series as an “abortion game show,” but the headline has been changed.
Talk-show host Laura Ingraham criticized the show, its approach and the series’ producer. On her Feb. 3 show, she described it as “disgusting” and crass entertainment that “glorifies abortion.”
She criticized Iocco, who serves as provost at San Diego’s John Paul the Great University, for not being more forthcoming about his pro-life intentions.
“The provost at a Catholic university could not answer a question about the sanctity of life in a straightforward way,” said Ingraham. “I find that appalling.”
“The way to approach someone who is undecided about abortion is by listening first, not asking if they are pro-life or pro-choice,” responded Iocco. “Any good sidewalk counselor will tell you the same thing.”
“We wanted to create a piece of art that encouraged listening first and that created a space where people could share their deeply personal stories about pregnancy and abortion in a safe environment,” added Iocco. “Anyone who is pro-life should be excited about an effort that listens first and portrays the reality of the women in these situations.”
Ingraham disagreed with the dialogue approach.
“How does this advance the ball on the life question?” she asked. She said that the series “muddies the water,” and said that rather than dialogue, she advocated being “on the frontlines to support life.”
“We believe that if we bring the truth to the story, it will change hearts and minds,” said Derry Connolly, president of John Paul the Great University, on Ingraham’s show on Feb. 9. “Jesus used stories.”
Connolly defended the university and its association with the production, noting that half of the student body attended the West Coast Walk for Life and that university students are present outside abortion businesses praying every week.
“The students at John Paul the Great are absolutely on fire for the Lord,” said Connolly. “Every student is pro-life and pro-marriage.”
“We wouldn’t debate slavery in this way,” responded Ingraham. “You went down a road that is not all that clear or helpful. I don’t think there is any reason for your institution to associate yourself with a project as anemic as this one.”
Those involved in the production of the series noted that none of these descriptions is true. While the series is shot in a “reality” style, it’s not a reality program.
“There’s no voting whatsoever,” said Salisbury. “Rather, the audience helps to shape the story through their input.”
“All members of the creative team are reading the viewer comments and stories and taking them into consideration,” described Salisbury. “Viewers aren’t being asked to decide whether a baby is kept.”
“The idea of an abortion reality show would make most people uncomfortable, if not sick,” said Iocco, noting that that is not what their program is.
Praise From Both Sides
The program has received praise from those on both sides of the abortion issue.
Entertainer and celebrity gadfly Perez Hilton said on his blog that the series “could spark some really important discussions on the subject.”
“I am encouraged when anybody tries to do anything to help the pro-life movement even if it’s not the same approach that I personally would take,” said David Bereit, national director of 40 Days for Life. “The example I think of regularly is the passage of Scripture about the body of Christ. The pro-life movement is made up of many parts, but we are one movement. There is a place for more gentle advocacy and sharing heartwarming stories, and there is a place at times for confronting people with the hard truth of what abortion is.”
Bereit offered the example of Feminists for Life campaigns, which seek to bring pro-life and pro-abortion people together to make sure college campuses are pregnant-woman-friendly and that resources are available.
“I know of many campuses that now have resources for women, and I believe that ultimately this will help to save the lives of children by meeting the needs of the mothers,” said Bereit. “All of these things, as long as they are well-intentioned and people do it in a Christ-like fashion, can work toward the greater good. The more people we have speaking up for life, the better off our nation will be.”
Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, agreed, describing the series as “a great service to the pro-life movement.”
“The commandment is against killing or compromising with killing, not against soft ads or approaches,” said Father Pavone. “Positive commands such as ‘do good’ or ‘preserve life’ admit of different degrees and limits.”
“On the pro-life side of the coin, we have to make sure that we’re not just articulating arguments,” said Father Pavone. “We need to feel with those who are facing the decision and the temptations that might drive someone toward abortion. This doesn’t mean that the decision should be anything other than choosing life, but the more we understand those in the situation, the better we will be able to help them.”
Changing Hearts and Minds
“We’ve aired less than 20 minutes of content, and this much controversy has already been stirred up in the public square,” said Iocco. “The only way to move people’s hearts and minds, regardless of your stance on an issue, is by enabling an honest conversation.”
“Having a conversation isn’t just about talking; it’s also about listening,” said Mahrt. “We’re convinced that the truth is strong enough to change hearts. That’s the strength of this.”
Those involved with the series have said they’ve been impressed with the dialogue that has already taken place online.
“We’re seeing the conversation begin to happen,” said Mahrt. She added that it hasn’t become a shouting match. “It’s been self-regulating. If someone shouts, someone else says, ‘That’s not what this is about.’”
So far, the series seems to be doing what the producers had hoped it would. Iocco shared the story of how the series has already brought together one woman and her family who hadn’t talked for the past two years because of an abortion.
“Women are sharing their stories about regretting their abortions,” said Iocco. “Others are sharing resources and talking about the success they’ve had after going through difficult pregnancies.”
“We’ve received hundreds of comments after only the first three episodes,” said Salisbury. “I’ve been impressed with the comment quality and caliber of the dialogue.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota