Whether or not to show graphic images of aborted babies is an eternal debate in the pro-life community, and one that will never be settled. It’s too subjective; there are too many gray areas, and each camp has too many die-hard adherents.
My opinion is based on my own experience. A graphic image of an aborted fetus played a major role in making me pro-life. I still think these images have their place, but over time I have come to believe that that place should be seriously limited, and I’ll tell you why.
I wasn’t planning on having an abortion debate the night I became pro-life. I thought I was going over to my friend’s house to play Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit and drink whisky after the kids were in bed. I was a self-described liberal feminist Democrat agnostic, and I was utterly dismayed by the “CHOOSE LIFE” bumper sticker on the back of my friend’s mini-van. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, and I knew she had married a Catholic and converted, but I sat in her living room and demanded to know when she stopped being a feminist and abandoned women’s rights.
My friend explained that she was still a feminist, and that abortion was the ultimate in misogyny. Say huh?
A long conversation ensued, during which I spouted the few pro-choice talking points I knew – “It’s a clump of cells”; “My body, my choice”; etc. – and had them smacked down, calmly and kindly, with science and sound reasoning. Because I was not a Christian – was in fact pretty hostile towards Christianity – my friend made an ethical argument, but not a religious one.
Finally, I was teetering on the brink of crossing over to the “dark side.” I had just been convinced, against my will, that abortion was a violation of human rights, exploitative to women, and – finally, literally – murder. My world was rocked, turned on its head. But I was not ready to say it out loud yet. Something was still missing from the argument.
“I want to see it,” I said. My friend told me she had seen photos and even video that had cemented her own beliefs. I was still holding on to the idea that this was “tissue” we were talking about, not a tiny person.
When I asked her for photos, she produced them. And at the moment I saw that first photo, I knew with a horrible finality that it was wrong. It was not okay and could not be okay, for any reason. It was the mangled body of a baby that had been killed.
I looked at more pictures of even tinier people, their faces almost but not quite featureless, all gossamer skin and pale blue veins and alien eyes. They were not pre-humans; they were humans, in their early stages. I knew this looking at them. “I used to be that,” I thought. I felt the same feeling: that it would be killing to end this life, that it could not ethically, logically, or scientifically be anything else.
When I left my friend’s house, I was pro-life. I hated it. I felt this new identity – this awful pro-lifeyness – twisting in me like a snake. I wanted it out. I went home and got online and read essays by angry feminists, pamphlets and articles from NARAL and NOW. I was begging the internet to make me pro-choice again. I looked up medical textbooks in my online college library. I read opinions from doctors and biologists and Supreme Court justices. I spent a week doing almost nothing but trying to be pro-choice again.
I failed. Miserably. The pro-choice arguments were weak and easily dismissed. And they could show me nothing to refute those photographs. In fact, I managed to find even more graphic photos, authenticated by physicians. I even read the words of “honest” abortionists, finally admitting that it was killing, but claiming that it was justified.
But I had seen it, and knew in my heart that it was not justifiable.
Once I accepted what I had learned, I became not just pro-life, but a pro-life activist. That conversation, and those photos, literally changed my life. Once I realized that abortion was murder, I was faced with the horrible and inescapable fact that abortion is legal. I have always loved justice and hated injustice. To me, nothing is more unjust than the ugly tyranny of abortion. The very fact that the unborn child is utterly dependent on his mother is the same thing that supposedly gives her the right to kill him. It is the ultimate in might-makes-right thinking, and it is wrong.
So if a graphic image was so important in my conversion, why am I writing an article titled “I’m against Graphic Images”?
First, the title is punchy but a little misleading. I’m not against them in every situation. In the example of my own conversion, for instance, they were used correctly, and they were invaluable.
But if my friend, instead of having the conversation with me, had thrust those photos in my face before she explained her argument, I would have been disgusted and stopped listening. If she had had a graphic image on a bumper sticker on her vehicle, I would never have brought the subject up, and would not have listened if she had. Would I have been stupid and wrong? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have mattered, would it? I would have remained pro-abortion.
I had seen graphic images of aborted fetuses before. Almost everyone has at some point. But – how do I explain this? – I did not see them.
In one case, I was attempting to find a website, typed in the URL incorrectly, and ended up with a giant photo of a mangled unborn baby in my face. I remember this well, because it helped form my resentment of the pro-life cause, and helped make me stalwart in my support for abortion “rights.”
It sounds crazy, but pretty much every former pro-choicer I know has told me the same thing. The truth is, unless someone is ready to see the image, she will not really see it. People don’t see a murdered baby. They see their own beliefs being assaulted; they see an obscene thing being shoved in their face; they see their young children being frightened and confused. They don’t see what we want them to see. Half of what we perceive is external reality; the other half happens in our minds. If you have the wrong mindset, you are not going to see the baby on that poster for what it is.
Unfortunately – and this is a gross estimate based on my years talking with many people about this, plus my own experience – for every one person who sees that image and is moved towards an understanding of abortion, there are 99 people who are simply disgusted by the person holding the sign. And that is not good for our cause.
Many highly respected and wonderful organizations – most notably Priests for Life – are convinced of the efficacy of graphic images, and use them. I don’t begrudge them this; they have the right to do it, and certainly the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, there are some who espouse graphic images not because they believe they are effective, but because they are angry that abortion is legal, and they want it shoved in people’s faces. I understand their anger, and I don’t deny that I have used images of aborted fetuses in my articles and at protests. I have had to examine my own motives. Did I hope someone would be converted by my sign? Yes, I did, but deep down I didn’t really think the images would work. I just wanted to say, “Look what you are doing. You should be ashamed.” It can be satisfying, but I believe that it accomplishes almost nothing good.
I advise against graphic images in most cases – usually when displayed publicly and openly, as a “frontline” tactic, and especially outside clinics. Can we claim to speak for women and children and yet dismiss the concerns of women who resent their children being exposed to these images? Many would do just that, claiming that it’s for their own good. As my friend Destiny, mother of four, has told me, her older children understand basically what abortion is and why it’s wrong without needing to see photos of it. “Do I need to show them pictures of a rape for them to get that it’s bad?” Whether you agree with Destiny or not, should it be up to you whether or not her children see pictures of abortion?
Every pro-life activist has to decide for him- or herself whether to use graphic images, but please: if you do decide to use them, you must get over the idea that those who don’t are not “hardcore” enough, that they are too soft and weak and not as really super-duper pro-life as you are. Some of us believe that the old adage “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” is quite wise. I have no problem with bluntness – as you well know if you read my blogs – and I am not suggesting that we lie; I am suggesting only that graphic images have their place, and the sidewalk is not it.
As much as I am convinced that these pictures are counterproductive when used incorrectly, when used correctly, there is nothing more convincing. We must continue to keep these images in our arsenal, to be produced when the time is right. We should never hesitate to show photos of intact fetuses, or to keep graphic abortion images available online for those who seek them out. But when we present the face of the pro-life movement to the public, we should make it one of reason and compassion.