[This post originally appeared on The National Catholic Register on January 22, 2013. Comments there are closed; comments here are closed. I will not respond to any emails about this topics. Anyone who comments about it on any other thread, here or at the Register, will be banned. As I said on today’s other post about graphic images, I spend part of every day crying for my lost baby, and I am not up for another round of hearing that I’m not really pro-life. I have already heard what you have to say, and the rage and condescension only persuades me further that the pro-life movement needs to be purged of misogyny if it will ever gain ground.]
Are you going to the March for Life, either in DC or in your state? If so, are you planning to display graphic photos or videos of aborted babies?
If you are, I’m begging you to reconsider. Fr. Pavone famously said, “America will not reject abortion until America sees abortion.” Most pro-lifers understand that Americans are tragically ignorant about what abortion really is — what it really does to real babies. Many of us remember seeing those bloody images for the first time, and can recall being shaken out of a vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause into the realization that this is a life-and-death struggle — real life, and real death.
But a public place is not the place to use these images — ever, I’m convinced. These images are like a terrible weapon which should be used with fear and trembling, and only as a last resort. Why?
There will be children at the march. Do you let your kids watch gruesome war movies or slasher films? No? Well, those movies show actors with fake blood, pretending to be tortured and killed. Why would you let them see the real thing? The pro-life cause is about protecting innocent life, and that includes protecting the innocence of young children. Studies show that violent images stay with us for a lifetime, and damage us.
There will be post-abortive women at the march. Imagine their courage in being there at all. Then imagine what it does to them to see, once again, the dark thing that keeps them from sleeping at night – the thing that often keeps them in decades-long cycles of self-loathing and despair. We don’t ask victims of rape to look at videos of rape in progress. We don’t ask holocaust victims to look at huge banners showing the piles of emaciated bodies. As pro-lifers, we must remember that every abortion has two victims: the child and the mother. We must never be on the side that hurts mothers. Never.
Mothers will be there. Thousands of the women at the March are mothers — mothers who have already given birth, mothers who are pregnant as they march, and mothers who have miscarried, delivered dead babies. For many of them, the grief over a miscarriage never goes away entirely. Many women stay away from any public march for fear of being subjected to these images so similar to the thing that caused them so much pain. Motherhood makes a woman’s heart tender. The pro-life movement should be a shelter that protects that tenderness — because the world needs it desperately.
Those are real babies. Christians are almost alone in affirming the dignity of the human person. Catholics, especially, understand that the human body is mortal, but still worthy of respect. When we use pictures of real babies as a tactic or a tool, we are in danger of forgetting that these are children with an immortal soul, and who have a name that only their Heavenly Father knows. They have already been killed. Let us treat their poor bodies with respect.
Public image matters. Some people’s only contact with obvious pro-lifers is with people who shout and condemn and terrify. It’s just basic psychology: if you want people to listen to you and have sympathy for your cause, don’t come across as a lunatic. You’re not a lunatic — but to people who don’t already agree with you, you sure look that way. Yes, your cause is worthy. No, you’re not helping it.
They sometimes push women into abortion. Do these images change hearts sometimes? They sure do. I’ve heard pro-life activists tell stories of women who saw these horrible images for the first time and decided on the spot that no way could they be any part of that. They kept their babies.
And I’ve heard pro-life activists tell stories of women who were pregnant, scared, and undecided — and when they were confronted with bloody images, they freaked out and rushed into the clinic as fast as they could, to get away from those maniacs with the signs.
So, yes, sometimes they save lives. And sometimes they cause lives to be lost. We don’t do things just because they work sometimes.
Desensitization is a real danger — even among pro-lifers. It’s just how humans are made: see something too often, and you stop really seeing it. I thank and bless those who work so tirelessly for the pro-life cause. But I beg them to stop and consider that, like policemen or like soldiers, they are human, and are in danger of becoming hardened out of self-preservation. People who have become hardened must never be the public face of the pro-life cause. If you, as a pro-life activist, see a bloody image and you don’t flinch, then it’s time to take a break — move into a different segment of the ministry, one that emphasizes prayer and reparation.
People see what they want to see. When the apostles begged the Lord to send the dead to persuade people to repent, He said that if they didn’t listen to the prophets, then they wouldn’t be impressed by the dead coming back to life, either. Many pro-choicers speak as if everyone knows that pro-lifers use photoshopped images — that the tiny, mutilated feet and hands and heads are a hoax that’s been thoroughly debunked. It’s a lie, of course. But people believe it all the same, because they want to (and pro-lifers don’t help their cause by being sloppy about things like identifying gestational age on photos).
All the same, bloody and shocking images have their place. Pro-life activists are right when they say abortion depends on silence and darkness, and that truth must be exposed. Too many people who are pro-choice because they somehow still don’t know what fetuses actually look like, or what happens to them when they are aborted– or because they’ve simply slipped into a comfortable shelter of euphemisms. These lies, this comfort must be stripped away.
So when should you use graphic images? When a teenager shrugs and says, “My health teacher says it’s not a person until 25 weeks.” When someone who works at a clinic says she’s doing a gentle, compassionate work of mercy. When your boyfriend wants you to get rid of “it” before it becomes a real baby. When a college girl likens unborn babies to tumors or parasites. Then you can respond to the actual situation, to the actual person. Then you can take out the picture and say, “Is this what you’re talking about?”
I believe that everyone should see an image of an aborted baby once in their lifetime. And I believe that, like any traumatic image, it will stay with you. Once or twice in a lifetime is enough.
Abortion is violent. Abortion is cruel. Abortion inflicts trauma and pain. As pro-lifers, we should have no part in any of that. Let us save the graphic images for a weapon of last resort.