Abortion foes debate best PR approach

Print More
roe v. wade

An Anti-Choice Project member holds anti-abortion signs during the 2012 March for Life in Olympia, Wash. RNS photo courtesy the Anti-Choice Project. *Note: This photo may only be used with RNS-ROE-GRAPHIC.

(RNS) When thousands of abortion opponents gather on Friday (Jan. 25) on the National Mall for their annual protest march, they will be united in their fierce passion for ending a procedure that the Supreme Court legalized 40 years ago in the controversial Roe v. Wade decision.

But they will also be more divided than ever on how best to rally people to join their cause: shock them with harsh slogans and graphic images of mangled fetuses, or convince them with reasonable arguments and affecting ultrasound images.

roe v. wade

An Anti-Choice Project member holds anti-abortion signs during the 2012 March for Life in Olympia, Wa. RNS photo courtesy the Anti-Choice Project. *Note: This photo may only be used with RNS-ROE-GRAPHIC.

If activists are going to the March for Life “to display graphic photos or videos of aborted babies,” Simcha Fisher wrote this week in the National Catholic Register, a conservative outlet, “I’m begging you to reconsider.”

Fisher admitted that such images once shook her out of “a vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause” and turned her into a serious activist.

But she believes that “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.”

Fisher’s view is hardly universal among abortion foes. “America will not reject abortion until America sees abortion,” as the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, likes to say.

Pavone and other longtime veterans of the anti-abortion fight – leaders of the American Life League, Operation Rescue, and the Pro-Life Action League, for example – still see the shock value in gruesome images, which they say are effective and also appropriate to the gravity and reality of the issue.

But they tend to be activists who were mobilized in the early years of the movement, when they rallied supporters with videos like “The Silent Scream” and drew public attention with guerrilla tactics at abortion clinics.

Now, however, a new generation of activists has a new approach and new tools to make their case in a more appealing way – vivid computer imaging that shows thriving babies in the womb and a growing network of counseling centers that seek to convince pregnant women not to have an abortion.

roe v. wade

A new generation of activists has a new approach and new tools to make their case in a more appealing way – vivid computer imaging that shows thriving babies in the womb and a growing network of counseling centers that seek to convince pregnant women not to have an abortion. RNS photo courtesy Shutterstock.com.

“You’ve got some who believe in holding up graphic signs of abortion. I’m not one of those and I don’t think that’s the best approach,” Jeanne Monahan, 40, who recently took over as head of the March for Life, said a couple of weeks before this year’s demonstration.

“I think we can be more positive and compelling with science and reason.”

Champions of the soft-sell approach were shocked at last year’s March for Life when one group unveiled a huge video display of graphic images, a tactic that led to a backlash among some abortion opponents and sparked an intense debate in blogs and online forums that has continued.

“In a situation teaching about abortion these are powerful tools, but to thrust it on everyone with no regard or warning is irresponsible and self righteous,” Theresa Bonopartis, an anti-abortion activist from New York, wrote after the 2012 march.

The debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon. As Monahan said, “Everyone’s there and they’ve got their constitutional right to say what they believe and to do it in the way that they want.”

Moreover, legalized abortion seems to be a settled issue for most Americans, according to various polls, and the frustration with the status quo leads some abortion opponents to push for more aggressive PR efforts, notes Michele Dillon, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has written about abortion and the culture wars.

But, she says, the younger generation has the better argument.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence showing that these extreme visual representations have made a dent in the general support for the legalization of abortion,” Dillon said. “It just turns people off.”

In her column on Tuesday, the 40th anniversary of the Roe ruling, Fisher listed many of the other reasons frequently cited for not using graphic abortion images: to avoid scandalizing children and making women feel rejected, to show respect for the fetus in the images, and to avoid “desensitization” among abortion opponents.

But at the heart of all the advice, she said, is “basic psychology.”

“If you want people to listen to you and have sympathy for your cause,” she wrote, “don’t come across as a lunatic.”

 (Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report.)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained a graphic image from an anti-abortion sign that was subsequently removed.

  • Wendy Gustofson

    It’s an interesting debate whether or not to use these repulsive pictures. I am someone who loves to hear good debate, I like hearing all sides of an issue. But when I encounter people using this tactic, I turn the other way. In my opinion, this is not good sound debate, it’s designed to scare, and that doesn’t attract me to listen to the logic behind their side of the debate.

  • Kay Frederick

    I’ll answer by telling you my story.
    A Planned Parenthood clinic I routinely drive past had a bevy of these protestors marching on the sidewalk. I pulled up to them, got out of my car and approached them. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart for being there as they reminded me that I had not given PP a donation recently. With that I walked inside and wrote a check.
    So I guess my answer is that I find this method repulsive, not taking the woman into account at all.

  • Lori

    Like the atrocious photos above, they SHOULD cause us to turn away. It’s painful to look at (and not feel responsible for) these precious babies who didn’t have a voice, or should I say…a choice in the matter.

    When someone uses a photo to bring attention to this barbaric procedure, they’re called extreme – but it’s not extreme to kill a child? Who are WE to end a human life? Rather, we should be doing everything we can to protect these precious lives. Someone needs to speak on their bahalf!

    All while millions of innocent babies continue to be aborted. And we not only turn a blind eye, but we vote in favor of it! Shame on us..

  • “when I encounter people using this tactic, I turn the other way”

    Yes. And as an effective social reformer from two centuries ago said, “You may choose to look the other way. But you can never again say that you did not know.” William Wilberforce was a successful slave trade abolitionist who used graphic depictions of slave treatment and disturbing displays of the various torture instruments to make slavery impossible to ignore or trivialize in England.

    People have to be bothered by an injustice before they’ll lift a finger to stop it. Abortion pictures bother people. Injustices which are covered up have no hope of ending. The truth hurts. But the lie hurts so much more.

  • “With that I walked inside and wrote a check.”

    Whatever amount you wrote was a pittance in contrast to the $300 million PP gets from tax dollars. Tax dollars which are on the table to be cut, thanks to the public opinion shift which is a direct result of people seeing what abortion does to babies.

  • The article is clearly written with a bias against the pictures. An honest appraisal of the debate would have given equal space for each side to defend its rationale.

    Also, while citing the Anti-Choice Project (founded by two pro-lifers in their 20’s) the article fails to acknowledge that the favored use of graphic images is being advanced largely by the younger generation.

    Additional examples of organizations with younger leadership using the pictures include the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, Abort73, Abolish Human Abortion, and Justice for All.

    The groups who are predominantly against using graphic abortion photos are the organizations which put on the annual marches in protest of Roe v. Wade — organizations which have been around for four decades, and are typically run by an older generation of pro-life activists.

  • Lisa

    I find this method to be extremely repulsive & wrong. I don’t know any woman who chooses abortion to come to that decision lightly. It is a decision that is personal and has usually been well thought out for each particular woman. If an abortion isn’t right for a particular person, that is fine, do not have one, but don’t force your views on another person with such repulsive pictures. I was raped many years ago and I thank God that I did not get pregnant. As it was, I dealt with PTSD for many years following that rape and, no, I would not have been able to have my rapist baby had I gotten pregnant. I don’t think a woman who is already suffering needs to be subjected to such horrific photos. No one knows, what a woman is going through at any particular time, and why they came to that decision. You do not know if a woman really wanted that pregnancy and because of a health reasons has to abort the fetus. Think! Put your feet in that woman’s shoes. before passing judgement and throwing such repulsive pictures in their face. It is a personal decision, let it remain that way.

  • I’d like to respond to each of the objections Simcha Fisher makes about displaying abortion pictures in her article. I believe this question needs to be settled because it is so critically important to the success of our pro-life activism.

    First, I find it remarkable — perplexing even — that Ms. Fisher opens by stating:

    “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.”

    She’s absolutely right, of course. Most of us can remember the first time we saw the pictures. Twenty years later, I can still remember vividly the moment in my life when I first saw them: I was at home, in the 8th grade (13 years old) when my dad showed them to me. I could not believe that what I was seeing was perfectly legal in America.

    If, as Simcha Fisher notes, the pictures are what shook many [all?] of us out of a “vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause” into the full realization and appreciation for what was at stake, and the effort which would be required to stop it, then she has just torpedoed every subsequent argument for hiding the truth and covering up
    abortion images.

    “But a public place is not the place to use these images — ever, I’m convinced.”

    Ok, let’s examine her reasons 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.”

    We know that wherever these pictures are seen minds are changed, and ultimately lives are saved. The author already admitted so herself. So when it comes to children seeing the pictures, we have to decide which matters more: the lives of the unborn children saved by those who see the images, or the feelings born children who will see them? We
    believe lives trump feelings, so we use the pictures.

    As a practicing Catholic, I have to wonder if Simcha Fisher only attends Mass at Catholic churches where the walls are barren, or where all crucifixes have been stripped down and replaced with the Risen Christ. After all, we must “protect the innocence of young children,” and “studies show that violent images [like a man tortured to death on
    a cross] stay with us for a lifetime, and damage us.”

    Next objection.

    “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.”

    No, we don’t ask rape victims to look at videos of rape. And we don’t ask holocaust victims to look at holocaust images. But then, raping a woman is not protected by the law, and killing a (born) Jewish person is likewise illegal.

    Yet, imagine if this were not the case — something not particularly hard to do since in Germany it was once perfectly legal to starve and incinerate millions of Jews. If we were living in Nazi Germany and you obtained photos taken from inside Dachau and Auschwitz, would you not send the photographic evidence of what was happening to every newspaper in the modern world? And supposing the press refused to run the images, would you not blow the pictures up yourself, mount them on some hard backing, and stand with them in the public square to show as many people as possible what the Nazis were doing to innocent Jews?

    Or, perhaps for the sake of painful memories you know the images would inflict upon Nazi concentration camp defectors, you would hide the
    photos in a shoebox beneath your bed.

    Yes, in every abortion there are two victims. But we must never forget that the primary victim is the baby, tortured to death against her will. If we mistake the mother as the primary victim, and build our campaign of social reform around the sensibilities of post-abortive women rather than slaughtered babies, abortion will not end. As Joe
    Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League has said, “The truth hurts. But the lie hurts so much more.”

    Objection #3 from the article:

    “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.”

    Stephanie Gray, a professional, full-time pro-life activist and founder of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, answers this objection soundly in her piece published at LifeSiteNews.com titled,
    “A March for the victims — that excludes the victims.” She writes:

    “Any effective social reform movement realizes it does not conform its campaign to the participants, or the public, but rather challenges the participants and the public to conform their lives to truth and
    justice. It’s not a movement’s fault that some people refuse to be in the presence of victims. The movement which stands for truth and justice must not be blamed for the cowardice of those who facilitate the cover up. Lovers of truth unite. Lovers of comfort divide. Things eventually get uncomfortable, and if the idea of comfort reigns
    supreme, lovers of comfort will leave when comfort does as well. But the pro-life message isn’t about making born people comfortable. It’s about enabling pre-born people to keep living.”

    Ms. Fisher continues:

    “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.”

    Many images of atrocities are used without a victim’s permission because of the very circumstances surrounding his or her death. We
    print all sorts of images of the dead in our Christian history textbooks. Many famous paintings depicting dead bodies hang on public display in our museums. Native Americans killed at the hands of European settlers. Civil war battlefields strewn with corpses. Blacks hung from trees by the KKK. Mass graves from the Jewish holocaust, and more.

    In our Catholic churches we erect larger-than-life crucifixes, and sculpt statues of Catholic martyrs, still in the agony and throes of a torturous death.

    Does Ms. Fisher propose all of these morbid depictions be likewise jettisoned, out of respect for the dead? Or may we continue to use them as an educational tool?

    The greatest respect one can pay the dead is in preventing future deaths like theirs. In other words, showing the images, not hiding them, reveres their memory. It creates awareness of an injustice with
    the expectation that there will be fewer victims in the future because society knows about the victims of the past.

    As abortion images have proved to save lives, what greater respect could be granted to the victim than to allow their unjust death to play a role in saving the life of another innocent person?

    Back to her article:

    “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.”

    Straw man argument. Is this an article against obnoxious shouting and holier-than-thou condemning, or is it an article against using graphic

    Silently holding a picture of an aborted baby is not an act of lunacy. Rather, it reveals the lunacy of a society which would accept such an injustice, even condone it as a “constitutionally protected right.”

    People always want to attack the messenger when confronted with a message they do not like. But we should not care what people think about us; we should care what they think about abortion. And nothing is so effective at convincing someone abortion kills children, and should therefore be illegal, as a photograph of it.

    So long as we continue stating — rather than *proving* — the conclusions we want our society to make, we will be working in vain. It’s been 40 straight years of 1+ million abortions; 55 million whose deaths are protested largely with once-a-year marches, text-only signs, bumper stickers, lapel pins, and red roses. Those are all good
    things. But is it any wonder we have made such little progress?

    Father Pavone explained it this way:

    “When you want people to act to reform deeply embedded trends in society, it is not enough simply to know that the trends are wrong. One must be profoundly disturbed so as to be stirred to action. One must perceive the difference between evil and absolute evil, between tolerable evil and intolerable evil. One must be made angry enough to be willing to sacrifice to end injustice — and in this sense, the very reason some say pictures don’t work because they make people mad are really hitting upon the reason why they do work.”

    Simcha Fisher continues:

    “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.”

    I have never seen anyone look at an abortion picture and then decide — because of what they saw in the picture — to have an abortion. So
    I do not for a moment accept the premise of this argument. (A woman might choose abortion *in spite* of seeing an ultrasound image of her healthy baby, or *in spite* of seeing an aborted baby. But you will have a hard time convincing me that she will choose abortion *as a result* of seeing an ultrasound or an image of an aborted baby.)

    But let’s set rational conclusions aside and assume that it is true: Sometimes lives are saved when you hide the truth. Ms. Fisher’s conclusion is, “We don’t do things just because they work sometimes.”
    Well, that conclusion works just as well in the reverse. We don’t do things [i.e., cover up abortion pictures] just because it works sometimes.

    Point #7 from Ms. Fisher:

    “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.”

    Does this reasoning work anywhere else? I don’t flinch when I see a crucifix. Should it come off my wall? No doubt there are driving instructors who don’t flinch when they show drunk-driving accident
    scenes. Should they stop including these pictures in their classes?

    Final point:

    “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).”

    So we shouldn’t show pictures of abortion because of those pro-aborts who live in a constant state of denial, and for whom no amount of evidence will persuade? Should we close down all Holocaust museums for the sake of Holocaust deniers? Exactly what sort of logic is this, and how did it get published in such a reputable Catholic newspaper?

    There are a million reasons why we should not display graphic abortion photos in public, or at our marches. But they are all trumped by the one reason which Simcha Fisher began her piece with: They work.

    The pictures galvanize the pro-life movement as a whole. They make abortion impossible to ignore or trivialize. They convert abortion doctors like Dr. Bernard Nathanson, and Planned Parenthood clinic
    workers like Abby Johnson. They convince the undecided. They compel the indifferent. They convict the nominally pro-life into a life of activism, like Lila Rose, who at the age of 9 stumbled upon them:

    “On the bottom shelf of a bookcase, I found something called the Handbook on abortion by Dr. and Mrs. J.C. Willke. Curious, I opened it. And there they were: pictures. In shock, I quickly shut the book and pushed it away. And then I opened it slowly and looked again. I was looking directly at the picture of a tiny child, maybe ten weeks old, with tiny arms and legs, who had been the victim of an abortion. Right then I knew it was ugly and wrong. But over the next decade I grew in my understanding of the gravity and urgency of this holocaust of unborn children, of our duty to protect them, and of my desire to help. When I was thirteen I wrote in my journal, “God, it’s time I
    actually do something about abortion.””

    How many more Abby Johnsons and Dr. Nathansons would we have today if pro-lifers would hold up abortion pictures during their prayer
    protests at Planned Parenthood clinics?

    How many more Lila Roses would we have today if pro-lifers would hold up abortion pictures during our rallies and marches?

    Ms. Fisher’s conclusion:

    “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.”

    And how, pray tell, is everyone in America supposed to see an image of an aborted baby if pro-lifers must never display them in public?
    Injustices which are covered up have no hope of ending.

    3,500 more babies will be tortured to death today. That’s another September 11th every single day in America. Except Osama bin Laden isn’t killing our children, we are.

    Planned Parenthood cannot believe it’s good fortune in a pro-life movement which would actively work with them in covering up the evidence that abortion is an act of violence against a baby. Until the pro-life movement studies the history of effective social reform — from the abolition of slavery to the modern anti-war movements — we
    will never win this battle.

    At the height of the slave trade, English abolitionist William Wilberforce would aquire and then make public displays of the various torture instruments being used on slaves. And he would say to those
    passing by, “You may choose to look the other way, but you may never again say that you did not know.”

    Baby killing will continue until people are bothered enough by abortion to do something about it. And nothing bothers them like a picture of a mutilated child.

    Dr. Martin Luther King was exactly right:

    “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

  • Pro-lifers admit to a spectrum of personhood when they use grisly images to make their point. They’re saying that, the longer the pregnancy goes before abortion, the worse it is. (You notice that they never seem to use a box of Plan B on their posters.)

    I’m pro-choice, and I agree. Let’s encourage early detection of pregnancy and enable (not hinder) people who want to get an abortion done as quickly as possible.

    I talk more about this spectrum argument here:

  • Pingback: The Morning Buzz | How Reliable Are Robo-Polls, Anyway?()

  • Pingback: Creepiest pro-choice video possible? | Sacred and Profane()

  • Maynard Raimann

    Induced abortion has a long history and has been facilitated by various methods including herbal abortifacients, the use of sharpened tools, physical trauma, and other traditional methods. Contemporary medicine utilizes medications and surgical procedures to induce abortion. The legality, prevalence, cultural and religious status of abortion vary substantially around the world. Its legality can depend on specific conditions such as incest, rape, fetal defects, a high risk of disability, socioeconomic factors or the mother’s health being at risk. .;;..