Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Graphic Abortion Images: It's not a matter of "if," but when, where and how.

Photo Credit: Catholic Philly

In the past couple of weeks, there has been some public debate over the use of graphic images of aborted babies.  I find people feel strongly one way or the other, or they are conflicted and not sure.  No one should have their pro-lifeness called into question for discussing their thoughts one way or another. Good, pro-life people can disagree since it is a prudential issue. 

I have a deep admiration for my pro-life brethren and I hope I do not offend anyone in the way I try to convey my thoughts on this most delicate subject.

This is a long post you may want to bookmark and read as you get time.  Those interested in this subject will do so; others will pass it up.  I felt it was better than dividing it up into endless, smaller posts.


Public debate began when Simcha Fisher wrote a post on January 22 at her National Catholic Register blog. The post was entitled, "Eight Reasons Not to Use Graphic Images at the March for Life."  

I don't know Simcha Fisher; I found her post because someone linked to it.  I see she's the mother of nine children so that makes her a great witness to life.   I did not agree entirely with everything she wrote, and I thought some things came out awkward, but I understood the gist of what she was trying to say.  I myself have struggled with the use of large graphic images at pro-life events, where anyone of any age, is exposed to them.  I have heard from other pro-lifers over the years who feel the same - some of them who have done sidewalk counseling.  Yet, I don't deny that there are times the photos are helpful or necessary.  That is where I believe the fundamental disagreement lies in this debate: When, where, and how they should be used. 

At first I thought Simcha was calling for zero use of graphic images, but that is not what she is saying.  It seems to me that she is looking for discretion in their use.  She wrote

"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...." [Then she gives her 8 reasons] 

That's what I mean about some things coming out awkward. You can't say something shouldn't happen, "ever" then say, "only as a last resort." I'm not getting hung up on that. She, like others, apparently is looking for some kind of discretion in their use.

On Friday, February 1, Dr. Monica Miller countered with a guest post at the Pro-Life Action Leauge blog: "Why Graphic Images Need to Be Displayed." Dr. Miller is local, so I do know her through her talks and brief interactions at area events. One of Simcha's 8 objections was that young children would be needlessly exposed - a concern that I share.  I was rather surprised by this part of Dr. Miller's response.  

This crisis requires that the truth be publicly exposed — and the magnitude of the injustice that we face overrides the possibility that children will see the pictures. It simply makes no sense to forego the public exposure of our national slaughter that has sent tens of millions of children to their deaths for the sake of sparing children who might see the photos and who might be affected by them. The horrific injustice of abortion and our nation’s continued support for it requires that the photos be shown — despite the possibility of children seeing the disturbing images.

While nothing she says is immoral, I'm going to use this to explain my concern: It's like saying the ends of making the injustice to those aborted visible, justifies the means of exposing little ones who can do nothing about that injustice.  She does say in her post, that certain groups do their best to warn people that graphic images will be in use so parents can make decisions about whether to bring children. There is something about this that needs to be explored deeper, and I do so further down.

Some groups can't warn people in a practical way.  Picture this: A Truth Truck at a stop-light next to a van full of elementary school children on their way home.  When you drive through traffic with a larger than life display of an aborted baby, you just don't know who will be exposed to it.  Maybe some feel this is a worthy risk; I ask if it is a necessary risk? Some may be quick to presume I'm saying graphic images shouldn't be used when I'm actually saying, perhaps there are alternative ways of using graphic images without that risk.

Getting back to the public debate references...

At 5 PM the same day Dr. Miller released her response, Al Kresta had both women on his radio show to discuss the subject.  I've listened to Al for many years and have learned some interesting things from him and his guests.  I look forward to continued listening. Though you will see that I respectfully disagree.

The live interview with Simcha and Dr. Miller didn't go over the way anyone expected. Even Kresta acknowledged as much at the opening of his 5 PM hour yesterday.  Here is the followup discussion in the February 4, 2013 second hour audio.  His opening was classy and I admire his willingness to shoulder responsibility for, "not managing the discussing." However, I don't know if anyone could manage this particular discussion inside of 30 minutes, on live radio, to anyone's satisfaction.


In his opening monologue, after explaining some of the emotionally difficult work Dr. Miller does, which includes retrieving aborted babies and photographing them, Al threw out a content question that he felt was a central issue in the debate: "How does a person who holds a brutalized, bloody, crucified victim of crime [Our Lord], up for the world to see, object to some of our nation's most effective and dedicated pro life leaders holding up the bloody brutalized victims of abortion for all to see?"

First, I just want to point out that I think this makes the debate about those "effective and dedicated pro-life leaders" too personal.  We should be able to discuss conflicts and differences without being made to feel we are challenging the dedication and hard work of others and that's what this kind of language does, in my humble opinion. 

I have two responses to Kresta's question; others can answer in the comment box. 

1)  We need an appropriate comparison.  I haven't seen people holding up brutalized, bloody versions of a crucifix.  In our homes, around our necks, and in our parishes, are quite sanitized versions. Even the nails don't quite satisfy just how bad it was in most crucifixes we see.  Many of us grew up with these sanitized versions from infancy.  Few show any signs of blood. If you want a good comparison, let's use the bloody, brutalized version from the Passion of the Christ.  One caller into Al's show did just that. I don't see images like this at family events.  And, I think the March for Life has become a family event.  I also believe that is why we are seeing increasing objections to use of these images in such venues.  I'll elaborate later.

2) The central question for me, and I think for most who discuss this with me, is not *if* we should use graphic photos, but when, where, and how.  Therefore, no one is trying to deprive other pro-lifers of using something they know or believe is effective.   I share the belief that graphic images of the victims of abortion can be effective.  I just happen to think that by using some discretion in very public settings we mitigate the loss of others who might otherwise join the effort, if not for wanting to avoid seeing images that are not necessary for them to see. There are many ways to reach people, and using graphic images is one of them, but not the only means.


I reluctantly called in yesterday (the first caller) trying to make a few points.  The reason I was reluctant to call in is because radio shows typically process a number of callers to capture a variety of perspectives - a good thing that often works out well.  I didn't think this issue was suited for it though, and Al's excellent analogy of trying to fit an elephant foot into a ballerina slipper was just as applicable to the second show.  With a 30 minute limit that included a monologue, it was more of a "lightening round" for callers. In the 90 seconds that I was on air, with one intervention by Al, I had about 60 seconds to make my point.  I don't fault him, but myself for trying that approach.  It's just the nature of live radio.  And that's why I blog.

In what little time I had, I mentioned that my first encounter with the pro-life movement came in the 70's when it was not uncommon to see use of graphic images coupled with shouts of condemnation at the women entering the mills.  This caused me to shy away from involvement with the pro-life movement.  At this point, Al agreed with me that such tactics ought not be used, but then he noted that these were two separate issues.  Where I was attempting to go before that intervention was to point out that for many still today, the reason they ignore the pro-life movement or don't get involved, is because those perceptions are still very much alive (and they are reinforced every time someone witnesses people reverting to those tactics, which still happens).   That is another area where I think Simcha's post was awkward, but knew what she was trying to convey.

There is an association with confrontational tactics and graphic images in the minds of many, even where confrontation isn't used. Perception can be reality for some, and this one has it's roots in a past that was different from the present.  For me, it took going out with the local chapter of  Helpers of God's Precious Infants when the founder, Msgr. Philip Reilly, visited.  At my first vigil, he broke that perception at the morning Mass (see him explain here).  My mind could not fathom that people could be outside of an abortion mill, and not be yelling at those entering. All the better, to see women being guided to crisis pregnancy centers where they got some much needed help.

I realize many who use graphic images at events also talk to women with compassion and guide them to crisis pregnancy centers, but it hasn't always been that way, and some groups using the photos have not changed. 


I first met Dr. Miller in 2008 at Assumption Grotto when she brought the remains of aborted babies to buried in our parish cemetery.  I recall being in awe that she would have that much courage to go into abortion mill dumpsters to look for murdered babies and for incriminating evidence to shut these slaughterhouses down.  My thinking then, was as it is now: God gives people the necessary graces for their state in life and for the work they do.  I believe retrieving, photographing, and documenting these horrors are necessary for the sake of truth.  Dr. Miller is gifted in this area.  She has written a new book, Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars.  In the book, she uses graphic images - pictures she herself took.  I can't know how painful such work is because I've never done it.  In the context of such a book, I support the use of the images.   It's educational. It's voluntary reading. It is giving exposure to sins that cry out to heaven, and to things we should never forget.

Here is an interview with Dr. Miller about "Abandoned" at LifeNews.  Given her experience, I'm interested in her historical perspective on the movement so the book is on my buy list.  She also gives some good advice, like keeping literature handy at all times because you may have an opportunity to intervene at any given moment and alternatives can be proposed.  See what sparked her involvement - also something we should pause and consider.   I agree with her that one of the biggest problems is our unwillingness to speak up when face-to-face with someone thinking about abortion.   We have to get out of that mode. Armed with the right education and materials, this can be done in a loving and gentle matter.

I also support use of graphic images online, but I prefer the way Priests for Life handles them.  They are not on the homepage, but there are visible links inviting people to look. No one going to the homepage is going to be shocked to the point that they won't go back. When people are met with graphic images on home pages, some may indeed be converted and send emails of gratitude.  What cannot be counted when graphic images are on the homepage is how many shut the window and never come back for more info.  At Priests for Life, the graphic images are behind clearly marked text. You make a conscious choice to view the pictures and videos.   In fact, the site is inviting for further exploration by virtue of the fact that nothing on the home page leads one to feel the need to click out of the site.  Fr. Pavone has said that these sections with graphic images gets used and people tell him how the photos helped.  The use is discriminate.  I support this, fully. In fact, when I discuss abortion, I will often challenge anyone reading who is pro-abort, or unsure, to have the courage to see what it is they are supporting. The good news is that I see out-clicks to those pages when I do that. 


I found it interesting when Dr. Miller acknowledged in that LifeNews interview that opposition to the use of graphic images began in the 80's and 90's. She is not certain what caused it. I'm not certain of my own theory, but I believe part of it has to do with more families wanting to be involved.  The pro-life movement of the 70's was truly an adults-only event. As I said earlier, many of these were confrontational, people were getting arrested, and I recall seeing violence (aimed mostly at pro-lifers).  This was definitely no place for small children.

Contrast that with what we see in recent years.  Families like to participate.  Rather than holding up bloody, brutalized, aborted baby pictures, they want to hold up their smiling children and ultrasound photos of babies in utero.  They want to fight darkness and death with the beauty of life.   They want others to see the humanity of the living unborn in ultrasound pictures so they understand how dehumanized babies are in abortion.  And, when they come, they don't want their young children exposed to towering images of decapitated babies with their faces snipped up and limbs missing.  These people may not be willing to get jailed, or to go into dumpsters to retrieve bodies of aborted babies, but I doubt God expects that out of everyone.  

These families are a legitimate branch of the pro-life movement. They will carry the pro-life message back to their extended families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, armed with the educational materials to share. Some of those materials could be pamphlets with graphic images inside, to be used as a "last resort" when all else fails to dissuade someone from abortion. I would personally keep these to offer to someone willing to take them, as a last resort.  

The more graphic images there are at public pro-life events, the fewer live children will be brought as witnesses.  Surely there is some way to balance this.  Perhaps there are more discreet ways to make these things available at events like the March for Life so people can see them, and collect them for personal distribution at home, without traumitizing little ones.

If there are any Catholic therapists reading, I would be very interested in reading your thoughts on exposing young children (i.e., less than 7), even if you must do so anonymously.  I hope people will be truthful about their professional status.


Some may have missed a second post by Simcha called, "Pushmi-Pullyu at the March for Life."  It was written on January 25, before Dr. Miller's written response and the radio interview.  I suspect Simcha was taking to heart some of the more reasonably offered objections in the comment box prior to that date.  Her second post captured the many faces of the pro-life movement today.  Simcha writes:

...If we could only get together, pool our resources, put all our muscle behind one specific tactic, then surely we could bring about real change!  Right? 
I doubt it.  Why?  Because there is no one single cause of abortion.  There is no one single reason women go through that door.  There is no one single type of woman who gets an abortion.  The only thing they have in common is that they are mothers of a live children when the go in, mothers of dead children when the come out.

Right.  I think everyone understands there is no cookie cutter spitting out pro-lifers of the same mold. Just as a body has no need for 4 arms or 3 heads, the pro-life movement needs variation. 


Al Kresta says it's a prudential area.  I agree, but I didn't walk away from the last two radio programs feeling warm and fuzzy that good, pro-life people can disagree.  Sorry Al.  What I heard, very passionately was: "What's the matter with you people?!?"  If it's a prudential area where good pro-lifers can disagree, then why do those who struggle with the practice not feel free to discuss it openly?  I sure don't. I truly believe Simcha Fisher had no clue what she was in for when she penned that article, innocently thinking it was open for reasonable discussion.

Go back to Simcha's first post and see how dialogue descended days later into a night at the colosseum: If advocates of indiscriminate use of graphic images publicly believe that good, pro-life people can disagree on the matter, they sure didn't show it. I thought there was more of a dialogue going on in the first couple of days. These, I suspect, were regular readers of the National Catholic Register, and/or Simcha's blog there.   By the time she published her second post the comment thread took on a very damning tone, with one person declaring that Simcha was, "advocating with the Enemy."  


Closing thought:  Pearls are created in friction.  

Some feel that discussion of this does harm to the pro-life movement by dividing it.  I say, discussion doesn't cause division; it's how we discuss it that can cause division.  I believe strength and growth emerge from good discussion about conflicts.

The comment box is open, but moderated.  I will not filter out any message, unless someone uses profanity, or feels the need to engage in serious personal attacks.  I"ll decide whether to publish those on a case by case basis. 

You may use the anonymous option, but I suggest you type a name or pseudonym in there right at the beginning and type above it, so you don't forget to sign it.  There's nothing like 100 anonymous comments with no way to distinguish between the individuals writing them. 



  • Feb 6 @6:12 AM:  Corrections have been made for reasons of grammar, redundant words; and, in one case a heading corrected (90 minutes nor reads 90 seconds). 

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