17 September 2009

Graphic pics hurt the pro-life cause

California Catholic Daily has re-posted a newsletter article by Father Thomas Eutenerer, president of Human Life International, sent out on September 14. Part of the article quotes vicious comments left by viewers of a local Michigan NBC TV station's report on the recent murder of pro-life activist, Jim Pouillon.

One comment prompts some reflection: "I've never seen this man before, but I've seen others like him. The signs are so offensive that the issue becomes about the sign instead of being about abortion. He hurts the pro-life cause and I'm glad that he's gone."

I have argued in the past that the use of graphic pictures of aborted fetuses at pro-life protests hurts the cause for life. This commenter mentions the presence of such signs as a good reason for Pouillon's murder. Of course, this is baloney. The direct killing of innocent life is an intrinsically morally evil act in all cases, under all circumstances, without regard to intent. There is no reason or excuse that renders such killing "a good thing." Period. Full stop.

But the commenter does raise a good question in my mind: what, exactly, do these signs tell others about the pro-life movement? What do they say about those of us who hate abortion and would see it stopped?

During my time as a pro-choice/abortion advocate, I was always appalled by these signs. I was less offended by the rhetoric of "abortion is murder" because, strictly speaking, I reasoned, abortion is not murder. Murder is the illegal killing of a person. Abortion is legal, therefore, it cannot be murder. That bit of legal sophistry went a long way in soothing my seared conscience at the time. However, the graphic pics did something else. They kept me away from the pro-life cause for years.

How so? Seeing these pics I immediately associated them with what I thought was fundamentalist Christian extremism: women are the property of her male family members; non-Christians are damned to hell; theocracy is the only way to govern America, etc. Being an enlightened left-liberal academic, these were horrific political positions to support. If "pro-life" meant theocracy, then I could never be "pro-life." The right to abortion was essential to American democracy.

Keep in mind: these were nearly subconscious associations not well-reasoned conclusions. The pics struck me at a visceral level, and I reacted at that level. How many other pro-choice/abortion folks out there resist the pro-life cause because of these pics? How many other otherwise decent citizens refuse to join us because, at some level, they associate the pro-life cause with unrelated extremist political positions? There's no way to know.

While serving as a campus minister at U.D., I was the faculty sponsor of the school's pro-life group. My one condition for serving in this capacity: no pics of aborted fetuses at clinic gatherings. There was a little grumbling, but the students took this restriction as a challenge to deepen the prayerful element of their presence outside the clinic. They focused on reciting the rosary and sidewalk counseling. No signs. No harsh rhetoric. Just prayer and a peaceful presence. They were prayerful rather than political.

We have no way of knowing how passers-by viewed their presence. But I do know that had I seen faithful Christians simply praying outside Planned Parenthood rather than holding pics of aborted fetuses, I would have come to the pro-life cause long before I did; or, at the very least, I would have thought better of those who opposed my pro-choice/abortion stance. Instead, the pics were an excuse for me to continue my support for abortion "rights." Anyone who would use tactics like these wasn't someone I wanted on my side of the argument.

Pouillon murder cannot be justified. But we have to wonder if his presence as a pro-life advocate would have been more effective as a faithful witness if he had chosen not to use them. I can only say that twenty-years ago I would have dismissed him as an extremist kook because of the pics. Nothing he said or did would have touched my conscience.

The Devil loves strife. He thrives on anger and violence. There is nothing for him to use against us when we bring nothing but love and hope to the fight. Pics of aborted fetuses hurt the pro-life cause. We should stop using them and focus our efforts on being a compassionate, prayerful presence.


  1. Anonymous6:09 AM

    The thing is, the debate has gone past that now. In the seventies, we thought we needed to show people that a fetus was a human person and that abortion was murder. But people respond to that now with, "Okay, and what's your point?"
    Our society is actually quite comfortable with killing little human persons.

    Regina F.
    The focus now must be to teach -- to catechize/evangelize, I suppose -- why killing little humans is morally wrong. (And, apparently, why it is also wrong to kill the people who defend them.)

  2. I agree. Those pics still keep me from associating with the protesters. I consider them extreme. I still remember my reaction when I first saw them. I was on my way to Lasallette Shrine for a Christmas service and saw these protesters. My first thought was "Hey, like the good old days." Then I saw these bloody pictures and was shocked. I didn't realize what they were protesting and when I saw these bloody graphics I was repulsed and thought they must be against some war or something. But then I recognized some people from my parish. I read the sign that said this was ___clinic and put two and two together. I was horrified! It made me draw back from these friends and the cause because I thought, and still do, that they're extremist.
    I plan on marching to Washington DC this next pro-life march, but I'm not carrying anything except my Rosary.

  3. hear hear and AMEN!!

    preach it again Father.

    I'm giving you a standing ovation.....or I would if not for the fear it'd wake up all my peacefully sleeping patients and create work to do! haha.

  4. John Kasaian7:55 AM

    The biggest issue I had against becoming more active was due to the graphic photos since it traumatizes children (who we are, after al, trying to protect!) Fortunately our local Right To Life organization dosen't utilize them.

    During last years 40 Days for Life I was exposed to a plastic trash can with a blue plastic liner filled with with tiny bodies. It was being wheeled off by a medical waste contractor via a side entrance which I happened to be passing (I don't recollect the reason why I had had left my companions) It was also odd that I was able to see what I saw since I would suppose the container would normally have been kept sealed from view.

    But there it was. The reality of carnage is far more offensive than photographs.

    Criticizing Pouillon strikes me as being unfair though. The man gave his life for a cause bigger than himself. That is rare in these days. While I don't sgree with his choice of signs, there is a precedent at least here in Californi where High Schools make it part of the curriculum that students in Driver Ed see photos of the carnage resulting from automobile accidents.

  5. I completely agree with your stance and have argued the exact points in the not too distant past. I am deeply pro-life, but I will not join protests that involve graphic signs.

  6. The counter-argument to this is: "America will not stop abortion unless America sees abortion."

    In other words, unless the truth of this is presented graphically, the execution of tens of millions of innocent unborn is a mere abstraction for those who are "on the fence."

    After May 1945, American soldiers forced German civilians, who may have denied that mass murder took place, to look upon the stacked corpses outside Dachau and other such places.

    My conclusion: Sometimes, not all the time, and not even a lot of the time, graphic exposure of such things is necessary.

  7. I would like to know Father, as it is not entirely clear from your post, what offended you? To paraphrase the line from 'A Man for All Seasons' It is a distasteful thing to be called a heretic, it is a far more distasteful thing to be one. The sign does remind us of the horror, and it should. We have photos of those starved in the holocaust, on some level so that when we see them we say to ourselves, never again.

    Not every person responds to the same thing. For example in the abolitionist movement you had John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln all offering different perspectives and different ways of pushing for the goal. Today, there are priests like Fr. Pavone and Fr. Eueteneuer, who strongly preach the message of life, and there are those who carry the signs, and there are those who only carry their rosary. But sometimes it is by irritating sensibilities that the most movement happens.

  8. The use of these images is something I am torn about. I don't like them at all, but I can't decide if that is more because I don't want to look at them myself or if there is some other reason behind it. When the group I go with goes to the clinics, we are there to pray, no signs.

    There is a group that has been coming to one of the clinics here in Pittsburgh that does bring signs with them and one person in particular who screams at women as they are going in through the door and after they have entered. Perhaps this is the extremist approach Father talks about. That I definitely do react to and I actually don't want to be there to pray and really struggle to be there to pray because of the things this person shouts at women. I believe that his shouting gives all the rest of us (and there is a strong contingent from Steubenville there every week) a bad name and makes it all that much easier for the 'pro-choice' escorts to mock us. Not only that, but screaming at a woman is not the way to get her to turn around.

  9. Rob, it's not a question of what offends me. It's a matter of being very, very clear about who and what we are when we present ourselves as public defenders of life. My own experience is that the graphic pics some use make us look crazy, hostile, and extremist. Reasonable pro-choice people who are nonetheless ambivalent about abortion see those signs and distant themselves from the cause. I did. For years and years. My understanding that clinic protesters not only want to reach the women going into the clinic, but they also want to establish a broader movement against the horror of abortion. I wonder how many ambivalent pro-choice/abortion folks turn away from us b/c they can't see past the posters of chopped up babies....

  10. Fr. Philip,
    I have to disagree with you, at least in principle. First of all, I'm assuming you don't oppose the display of crucifixes in churches... but maybe you do.

    I do believe that the use of graphic images can be appropriate. Perhaps not in all venues, but the simple fact that people are repulsed by them says, to me, that they are effective.

    I once heard David Lee talk about Justice for All [jfaweb.org], a program which displays graphic images of abortion on (secular) college campuses throughout the country explain why they show graphically what abortion is. He used the example of Emmett Till, a young black teenager from Chicago who was murdered in Mississippi for whistling and calling a white woman "babe." His body was so deformed and unrecognizable that the coroner sealed the casket, but his mother demanded that it be opened for the funeral. She said she wanted the world to see what they had done to her baby.

    Now, I agree that how we present ourselves is important and I think I understand who you don't want to look like and why. But, honestly, and I don't mean offense by this... but, I've never thought being afraid of being seen as a radical as a valid excuse for any Christian.

  11. Father, I have very mixed feelings about the pictures. I think it's appropriate sometimes, but it's difficult when we are at the March with our children and have to tell them not to look because there are billboard-sized pictures of aborted babies. It's traumatic to my girls (or would be, I think) to see these things! It's hard enough for them knowing that babies die, but ... well, you know.

    Also, I think it's a fine line for pro-choicers, too. Imagine the shock of seeing something like that if you are, as you mentioned, ambivalent AND also recovering from an abortion. Coming across these kinds of pictures, or having them driving down the street on the side of a truck ... horrible.

    They can be useful, in a limited way, but I stress "limited." At the March for Life, there is always a section that makes me feel like we're running the gauntlet as we shield our young daughters' eyes so they don't have to witness the horror.

  12. There's a time and a place for photographs of the brutal reality of abortion, and there's a time and a place where it's inappropriate to use them. I think horrid pictures like that outside of abortion clinics is uncalled for. But I do think that Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Patrick Leahy and every other faux Catholic politician ought to have his or her nose rubbed right into such pictures. The sight ought to be seared onto their hardened, apostate hearts.

    Personally, I avoid looking at such photos. I may post a link to one of them once in a great while at my blog site, but I always warn the reader before hand about clicking on the link. I can't stand to see torn apart, bloodied, tortured children. I assume most decent human beings feel the same way. Pelosi, Biden, Leahy, et al., are not however decent human beings.

  13. Bro Thomas,

    There is very little to compare a 2,000 year religious symbol, hanging in the Catholic Church and a life-size poster of a hacked up fetus paraded in the streets. Crucifixes in a church are not photos of real crucified men.

    However, I take you point to be that it is sometimes necessary to do unpleasant things for the cause. Your example is powerful but it's use in this discussion is limited. Emmett Till's body was displayed at his funeral...once. It had a tremendous impact b/c of it was displayed...once. And when the pics were used in civil rights demonstrations, the protesters use of the pics was effective b/c the pics were of a man named Emmett Till. The whole issue of abortion revolves around the personhood of the fetus. We believe that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception and therefore sacred as a creature of God. Pro-aborts do not. If, like Camille Paglia, all pro-aborts were honest and admitted the personhood of the fetus, then these pics might have some limited use in swaying them. Otherwise, I think their public use can make us look like kooks.

  14. John Kaasian7:35 PM

    St. Thomas Aquinas would not dismiss reality. The problem I see is that the ones who need to be confronted with reality (abortuary staff) are immune to it. The mothers on their way in are traumatized as it is. Our local Right to Life has a bill board across the street with an in utero image of a 22 day old baby and I can attest to at least one cancelled abortion as a result. The father came up to us and pointed at the image and said
    "Thats our baby! It's 22 days old---man we can't do this!" and took referrals for prolife counsellng.

    Would a graphic image have had the same impact? I doubt it.

    Would a graphic image have made an impact on high school kids (Pouillon's audience when he was gunned down?) Maybe. The California State Highway Patrol and our local public School Board think gore "sells" when it comes to teenagers.

    Certainly Pelosi, Biden, Kennedy and the Obamanator have seen the gorey pix and they obviously didn't make an impression on them. I wonder if the photos of the nazi gas chambers would have made an impression on them?

    I'd bet not.

    I vaguely remember a travelling exhibit several years ago where photos of corpses from various genocides were displayed along side the graphic photos of abortions. IIRC it was exhibited at a few college campuses. I personally think that would be an excellent thing to "revive."

  15. Anonymous8:44 PM

    I would have to disagree but I think there is a time and place for them.
    Some do not believe they are babies and think fetus to mean something other than a human life.

    Another example are of the Nazi concentration camp pictures. Some things need to be seen to understand the full impact.

  16. Anonymous9:29 AM

    We do need images, but what we need is less of the graphic photos and more of the ultrasound vans. Seeing one's own baby up close and personal right before an abortion - much more powerful than any graphic photo.

  17. I am a parishioner at Holy Rosary in Houston and have been reading your blog for a year or so. Here is my first comment.

    Have you heard Fr. Eutenerer speak? There are several worthwhile audio recordings available on the internet. I will summarize his points:

    1) The best place for pro-life protesters is before the Blessed Sacrament. There our prayers are most efficacious.

    2) There is only 1 kind of pro-life protester who needs to be present at the abortion clinic, and that is the priest. Experience shows that abortion clinics have been shut down most effectively when priests prayed there regularly. Fr. Eutenerer even recommends 4 priests at a time standing on all 4 corners surrounding the abortion mill.

    3) Remember that this is most of all a spiritual war, so the weapons must be spiritual.

    I'm sure you are aware that Planned Parenthood is building the world's largest abortion clinic outside UH and TSU. It will open early 2010.

    Perhaps it is time for us pro-lifers to change our game plan. Imagine if there were 1,000s of us, in the state of grace, before the Blessed Sacrament praying for an end to abortion - all at the same time.

  18. John Kasaian10:32 AM

    The image on the bill board across fro the abortuary is an ultrasound image---and it is quite effective!

  19. I think that there are two questions: the usefulness of these images in general, and the usefulness of these images specifically at public protests.

    I would agree that the use of these graphic images in a public venue or a public protest does more harm than good. Sure, some people are reached and affected, but I think that far more people are hardened or put off by them. When your position is as irrational as the pro-choice position ultimately is, it is easier when you can find an excuse to dismiss the alternative as being irrational or extreme. It also makes it too easy to dismiss the pro-life message in general as extremists or offensive or aggressive though guilt by association.

    I would have to agree with others who have suggested the ultrasound picture route, and I would add images of pre-maturely born children. They make much the same point without much if any of the offense.

    That being said, this does not mean that there is no place for these graphic images. I think we need to maintain access to these images. They tell an unflinching brutal truth. They can have quite an impact on people when the time is right. For me personally, seeing these kinds of images is one of the things that moved me from a luke-warm pro-life position to a more ardent pro-life position. So, I think we should maintain the availability of these images for those times when they can have a more productive impact.

  20. I agree with some of the other commentors that such images do have an appropriate place--but not in public.

    I made a full 180 from pro-abortion to pro-life when I went to a Web site (Priests for Life, I think) and looked at images of aborted children.

    I don't remember what prompted me to do that, but I recall being pretty smug about it--I believed the lie that aborted children were simply unrecognizable clumps of tissue. Boy was I wrong. I looked at the tiny little hands, feet, and faces and I knew I was wrong, that I'd been taken in by a diabolical lie. And that was it.

    Now, I was an adult, looking at those images in the privacy of my own home, having willingly chosen to do so. And that was a good thing. It changed my life. But when people are confronted with such horrific images--and worse, when their children are--in public and unwillingly, of course they are going to react defensively and perhaps with hostility, from the sheer shock of it if nothing else!

    So I do think that public witness should not include those images.

  21. Patricia3:20 PM

    The images used in the Face the Truth Tour can be awful, disturbing & controversial...& they ought to be, for they show the reality of what abortion does...that is, it kills a living, human child. During the Face the Truth Tour, some of the grim reality of abortion is presented. It is in seeing such images that we can be brought to the kind of indignation needed to sustain the sacrifices that will be necessary to finally bring an end to this injustice. It is critical to show people (at the proper time & place) the images of aborted
    babies to dispel the myth that persists that the unborn are not really human at all. There are times when we need to be shaken to the core from our complacency, & into repentance & action.

    This link by Priests for Life tells the history of Baby Malachi, one of the more common images used in the Face the Truth Tour:

    Fr. Frank Pavone at Priests for Life gives an excellent defense on his website of the necessity of the use of such images.

    May God have mercy on us all for not doing more to end the killing of His precious children!!

  22. Patricia3:23 PM

    The GAP (Genocide Awareness Project) uses similar imagery & sets up on college campuses to show the stark parallels between: the killing of Jews in the Holocaust (for the crime of being un-Gentile) in the name of “religious choice”—the killing of blacks in the south (for the crime of being un-white) in the name of “racial choice”—& the killing of children in the womb (for the crime of being unborn) in the name of “reproductive choice”. It was the images of these crimes against humanity that drove people to get involved to put an end to the killing.