Ever since Kristen Walker’s recent commentary in which she “advises against graphic images in most cases,” debate about pro-life strategy regarding abortion imagery has raged across the internet. At the core of Walker’s belief is the idea that if the images are used in the public square they will build “resentment of the pro-life cause.” While Walker seems motivated by legitimate concerns, she’s gravely misguided.
I don’t throw that criticism around lightly. It comes from a place of evidence and, literally, a lifetime of experience. I have used many methods to fight this Culture of Death and build a Culture of Life, beginning in my childhood, from Lifechain to memorials to letter-writing to pamphleting. From protests to political activism to working at a pregnancy center, I have done it all. I spent my university years, and now beyond, encountering opposition. Branching into a secular environment, I have spent much time “on the front lines” having thousands of conversations with “fence-sitting moderates” and adamant pro-abortion individuals, including formal debates (and preceding private coffees) with abortionists themselves. This has given me keen insights regarding the abortion battle, prompting this analysis.
There are two extremes to be avoided, one camp of which Walker falls into. The first instantly says, “If I show the pictures and people get mad, I must be doing something wrong.” The other instantly says, “If I show the pictures and people get mad, I must be doing something right.” In reality, one cannot come to either conclusion until first asking a question: Why? Why are people mad? Why are they upset?
If the answer is because the messenger is mean, then that is grounds to change. However, if the answer is because the message is challenging, uncomfortable, and inconvenient (yet true and just), then one must persevere amidst the resistance and resentment.
Consider Julie, a University of North Florida student I met a few months ago while doing the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP). I was teaching at an open microphone session in front of our large, graphic, and very public abortion display; for two hours, I responded to questions and objections from passersby. Just before we wrapped up, a young woman, Julie, asked if she could comment. After hearing her powerful words in that moment, we asked to interview her, and you can see the result below:
But consider what she said first into the open microphone, which flies in the face of Walker’s criticism:
Um, I remember when you were here about 3 years ago. And I was like a lot of the angry people out here. I walked by and I was so furious. I was pro-choice, and, um, I looked at this and I thought it was disgusting. Like you said, your point must be so weak that you would do this. But what it comes down to is very basic: We don’t want anyone to impose feelings on us. And these pictures make you feel guilty and sad and they’re bad feelings, and someone else is putting those on you, and it’s a stranger, but you can’t look at that and really, seriously support it. I saw these pictures and I went home and looked up a video of an abortion, and I cried until I thought I was going to puke. And I changed, because of this, to pro-life. It all comes down to, you don’t want someone else to impose bad feelings on you. These pictures do that. But it changed my life. I support it, and I appreciate it. I’m here for you.
Julie’s transformation shouldn’t surprise us. It’s consistent with how the public has responded to social reformers historically. Consider the successful social reformers we celebrate today: William Wilberforce, Lewis Hine, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King, to name just a few. These people confronted their cultures and publicized graphic imagery of injustice. In doing so, they faced severe persecution: threats, arrest, physical attacks, and even death. A good many among the public built “resentment” toward these freedom-fighters’ causes; yet today, we celebrate these individuals as heroes. Not a single one of them would have succeeded without the very public exposure of injustice.
As Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “[a]ll truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” We must remind ourselves that to get to that third stage, we must first pass through the first and second.
And so, as history has shown, public perception of social reformers was not very high until public perception of the injustice changed. Then, when that shift happened, the public embraced the very people and the very movements they once despised. Often, however, this occurred after the deaths of those social reformers. Furthermore, this social change occurred because the ugly, disturbing, unpleasant, gut-wrenching facts were shown. These social reformers were willing to sacrifice popularity for the sake of truth. The irony is that in doing so, they received popularity in the long run. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony expressed this well:
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.
At some level, pro-lifers, including Walker, seem to understand this, because pro-lifers erect crosses in remembrance of the pre-born, display “Feminists for Life” posters, and set up non-graphic billboards; they do sidewalk counseling and public protests. All, and I mean all, of these approaches have faced resistance – sometimes angry and violent resistance – from abortion advocates. In fact, Walker herself admitted to being “utterly dismayed” by her pro-life friend’s innocuous bumper sticker and “demanded” to know from her friend how she got to that view. If building resentment of the pro-life cause, or experiencing frustration at pro-lifers, is the litmus test for pro-life activity, we will quickly find ourselves doing no pro-life activity.
This is why Fr. Frank Pavone once said, “Our success will depend more on whether we are respected than liked. Respect flows not from doing what the other finds pleasing, but from what is seen as consistent with principle, courageous, and immune from the temptation to change with the wind.”
It is worth repeating this fundamental point: in the face of resentment/hostility/resistance, we must ask “Why?” before continuing or changing our course of action. When pro-lifers publicly display graphics while being good ambassadors, people may feel angry because they rightly are recognizing that they have embraced a human rights violation. This anger can actually be a positive thing – this strong emotion will force them to explore something they refuse to admit but need to admit. Lukewarmness is to be avoided, not passion.
In fact, I once received an e-mail from a Jewish man I never met, who sought me out to apologize for opposing my efforts to do GAP on my campus – eight years earlier! He had been insulted by my club comparing abortion to the Holocaust and actively sought to prevent us from doing GAP. Now, he says, his resistance of us is one of his biggest regrets from his university days. When I accepted his apology, he said, “I thank you for your forgiveness that I may go to the Day of Atonement with a lighter conscience.”
Just because conversion doesn’t happen overnight, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen over time. And so, Walker frames her commentary about public graphics around the wrong question: we should not ask, “Should we display abortion imagery in public?,” but rather, we should ask, “How should we display abortion imagery in public?” And we should display it as prominently as possible while being respectful, kind, good listeners, and Socratic (more asking questions than making declarative statements).
This is a point I made this past January, when I spoke at the Students for Life of America Conference. We must communicate the truth in love, and that means being good ambassadors (a concept from Stand to Reason) – not only imparting knowledge, but doing so with wisdom, and having solid character. As we say at our GAP training, there are two things people will remember long after the images are gone: 1) The pictures, and 2) Was I treated with respect? We can’t soften the blow of the harshness of abortion because abortion is harsh. But we can make sure that how we interact with people is with a spirit of charity.
And so, because pictures are worth 1,000 words, because injustice that is invisible inevitably becomes tolerable, because many gatekeepers prevent the pro-life message from getting to the very audiences which need it, we must show abortion images in public.
More importantly, because children are saved by this (I have held in my arms a baby boy whose mother canceled her abortion appointment because she saw abortion images on display on a street corner), because minds are changed, and because post-abortive women are moved to seek healing, we must show abortion images in public.
This is not empty rhetoric; there is a wealth of proof of the power of abortion displays. Here’s just a sample from the past month:
- Cracking The Abortion Consensus: Changing Hearts and Minds With The New Abortion Caravan Part I
- Cracking The Abortion Consensus: Changing Hearts and Minds With The New Abortion Caravan Part II
Within the pro-life movement, there should be one, and only one, fundamental principle guiding the choices we make about activism, and that is effectiveness. In fact, at my organization, we have large posters in every office reminding our 19 staff of our guiding principle of effectiveness. We make all decisions through that lens, and our efforts in this regard are complemented by our core values of quality, creativity, and honesty. When I recently met with a local pro-life group to give advice about how their organizing functions, I imparted these principles, which were eagerly received as helpful.
There is simply no denying the effectiveness of graphic images in saving lives. Period. Review the links above. Read our material at www.unmaskingchoice.ca. Read the testimonies from other groups as well, like CBR US, Justice for All, Pro-Life Action League, or The Anti-Choice Project, to name a few.
The question is not “do graphic images save lives?” (they do), but rather, “do they turn people off in such a way as to be detrimental to the movement?” And anyone still asking that latter question needs to re-read what I’ve written so far.
Now, is it possible that some women will see the abortion images and not change their minds? Of course. But no woman sees the images and decides to have an abortion because of them.
It seems to me that those who fixate on whether or not graphic images should be used in public are losing their sense of perspective. With over 100,000 children being dismembered, decapitated, and disemboweled every day throughout the world, how can we not expose this injustice?
Now, some might say that showing pictures of Holocaust victims in public would also be inappropriate. But is that really a relevant argument? What if it was Berlin, 1943? Would it be appropriate then? Of course it would. People risked their lives to get Holocaust photos out of Europe just so people would know what was going on. A genocide that isn’t publicly exposed to the culture will easily be denied. A word-based message that doesn’t resonate the way a visual-based message does will more easily be ignored.
As for Walker’s passing reference concerning children seeing abortion images, the reality is this: the lives of pre-born children trump the feelings of born children. If abortion were happening on a street corner, I don’t think our first reaction would be “How dare my child be exposed to this?!,” but rather “How dare this happen?!” Tens of thousands of children are being slaughtered every single day. We would do well to remember that.
Several years ago, when I spoke in South Dakota, a mom came up to me and told me her 3-year-old daughter stumbled upon an abortion image in a pro-life pamphlet. She asked her 16-year-old sister what it was, and her sister said, “Some doctors hurt babies.” Was the toddler traumatized? No. But she was convinced: her mom told me that every time the family gathers to pray, the little girl prays “that the doctors will stop killing babies.”
More recently, a donor of ours called because her 9-year-old son saw an abortion image in our newsletter and asked his mom what it was. The mother explained it. Then she called me with her son on the line so he could say directly to me what he told his mom after he learned what it was: “I want to stop abortion.”
Walker finishes her piece opposing the public display of abortion imagery by saying, “When we present the face of the pro-life movement to the public, we should make it one of reason and compassion.” She’s right we should make our message one of reason and compassion, but she’s wrong that publicly displaying graphic images fails to do that. Abortion imagery in public does present the pro-life movement as one of reason – there is no better reason why abortion is wrong than because it kills an innocent life. And to have compassion is to have sympathy for the other and to alleviate his or her suffering. Public displays of images show that not only for the pre-born, but also for the born.
Too many post-abortive women are suffering in silence and in denial, and encountering abortion imagery can move them out of denial, remind them of the need for healing, and prevent them from doing to other children what they did to previous ones. It is not a tragedy when the public sees abortion imagery. It is a tragedy only when they do not see them in time.
To love means to want the other’s good. A parent who says she loves her child and as a result does not discipline him to avoid getting him angry has a perverted sense of love. A parent who has true love for her child will discipline him. Like medicine, sometimes what is good for us doesn’t seem that pleasant.
When we are surrounded by darkness, we close our eyes at exposure to light. But eventually the pain subsides, our eyes adjust, and we realize that we are better off being in light rather than in darkness. So it is with publicly sharing the visual “inconvenient truth” about abortion: initial resistance will give way to acceptance. And we who are the messengers must stay the course, being respectful and kind in our interactions, all the while accepting short-term persecution in order to achieve long-term cultural transformation.
As Dr. King once said, “[l]ike a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Stephanie Gray is co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) and travels internationally speaking and debating about abortion. Learn more here: unmaskingchoice.ca and here: Facebook.com/CanadianCBR.