Theresa Burke, PhD, LPC
J. Kevin Burke, MSS/LSW
Graphic images of aborted children present disturbing, yet factual documentation of what abortion does to a baby. They constitute a growing tactic of the pro-life movement that seeks to proclaim the truth about abortion through visual images of dismembered babies. These real pictures of aborted children have tremendous value in documenting why the pro-life movement is against abortion. It dispels the myth that these fetuses are merely a blob of tissue because the viewer sees fully formed, tiny children completely ripped apart… bloody…. broken… their tiny bodies desecrated. For the passive, uninvolved viewer, they are scenes of disturbing injustice and to some, may present an urgent call to action and activism.
Nevertheless, pictures and images of aborted unborn children cause strong reactions in those that view them. They point in an equally powerful way, to the divisions in our society between those that support abortion rights and those fighting to end abortion. The greater majority of the public is uncomfortable with abortion on demand, but often equally confused or ambivalent about these images, and what should be done to limit abortion.
I (Theresa) recall my own experience as a teenager watching “The Hard Truth.” Never in my life had I been so convinced that abortion was truly an act of violence and horror. The images cut through the rhetoric of choice and obliterated the euphemisms that protect us from the full realization of what abortion is all about. I was stunned, and filled with grief that human life could be discarded in such a massive, sanitized and legalized injustice. Graphic pictures make it perfectly clear that abortion is a violation of human rights. I believe those images were very influential in my personal convictions and represented a profound motivation and call to be involved in the pro-life movement through a direct response to this social evil.
However my vocation in the pro-life movement did not lead me to protest or other forms of activism. My calling was to be with those involved in abortion, especially the mothers and fathers of these aborted children who also carried deep wounds from their involvement in the abortion of their unborn. I soon found that many women feel trapped, alone in their pregnancy and often experienced manipulation and pressure from partners, family and health care providers to abort their child.
As the founders of the Rachel’s Vineyard Weekend Retreats for Healing after abortion we have journeyed with hundreds of women and men into and through the wreckage of their shattered emotional and spiritual lives following abortion. We see this as another type of “graphic image” of abortion’s aftermath in the soul of the post abortive person.
Our ministry is focused on helping to disinfect the deep wounds inflicted by abortion and all the ugly lamentable after effects, by safely and gently opening this wound to the love and light of Jesus Christ. We recognize the life long memorials of destruction that are built to act out a secret inner pain and heart wrenching grief.
On Saturday morning of the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat participants share the story of their abortion experience and how it affected their lives. As the healing process unfolds participants move from the graphic images of grief, pain and disconnection from their aborted, abandoned child… to encountering their child whole, happy and with the Lord. This very real image, this powerful reality is an essential aspect of their healing and recovery from post abortion trauma. In the healing process both the graphic image of their aborted child, and the graphic wound that festered in their heart, is brought to the light of Christ, cleansed and healed. Those of us in this ministry have stood in awe at the sacred moment, when the soul speaks its agony to God in a desperate search for reconciliation, and have witnessed the power of the cross… the power of forgiveness and resurrection.
So we address this issue as both persons who embrace the efforts of the pro-life movement to end abortion, and in our primary vocation, as leaders in post abortion ministry.
Many courageous persons have been called to the front lines of the struggle to end abortion; using the most effective means they feel will stop abortion, including the legislative and political arena. We are still learning as a movement what are the most effective means to stop abortion, save the lives of the babies, and reach out in love to those involved in abortion. More recently, we have seen the effectiveness of ultra sound technology in crisis pregnancy centers. We know the spiritual value of a prayerful presence at the abortion center. There are other forms of non-violent protest including the use of graphic images. Graphic images are seen by some as a final effort at the abortion center to turn the heart of a parent set on aborting their child. Others believe that presenting images of natural fetal development are a better route. Some activists will use both graphic images and whole fetal images.
We are a nation that has become anesthetized to the reality of “choice”. Proponents of graphic images see themselves in very much the same tradition of other social justice pioneers such as those that worked to end slavery, and racial discrimination. The use of images demonstrating racially motivated violence toward African Americans was a powerful tool in the civil rights movement of the 60’s. We also see graphic images increasingly used to bring awareness to the present crimes against humanity in other parts of the world.
There is debate in the pro-life movement as to the proper use of the images of aborted babies. On one hand, some people reject the use of graphic pictures. They feel that the pictures are extreme and desperate. Some favor a more restricted use that would protect children from seeing them. Others support a more widespread use, bringing the truth of abortions aftermath to the public arena without restriction.
As we began to have our own children we made the decision that we would not take our youngest children to any pro life events that we knew would have graphic images on display. We wanted to avoid exposing our toddlers’ tender and precious hearts to these traumatic images of death and destruction even though we knew that these images represented the truth. Parents have different opinions on when the best time is to allow their children to view such images and of course we must respect their judgment. Once our children reached an age where they could understand and process the images we were able to attend these events as a family. Our nation has embraced this destruction targeted against the child and few people think about what it really means. We want our children as they grow to understand and see the reality of abortion’s affect on the unborn as well as the need for healing of all who participate in abortion. We see it this as an essential aspect of the formation of our children as God calls them to respond to this social evil.
Years later, I still cringe when I am present at a pro-life demonstration that displays graphic pictures of bloody and broken babies. NO ONE likes to view these pictures – especially those pro-lifers who believe that human life is sacred. It’s a natural nausea that comes upon all of us when the gruesome reality of abortion is “in our face.”
It is important that we respectfully dialogue about this issue in the pro-life movement and in our churches. Not with reactivity invested in protecting our own point of view, but with an openness to hear the impact and concerns on the various sides of the debate.
Is it possible to use these pictures with discretion? Is it possible to use them responsibly? Can they be used in a way that gives warning to unsuspecting individuals who might be passing by? Many women have reported that the pictures dissuade them from having an abortion – Yet others share that the way the truth is presented hardens their hearts even more and intensifies their anger.
I (Theresa) remember being in Chicago giving a full day seminar on post abortion trauma and healing. Joe Scheidler, a pro-life champion with a 30-year legacy of activism on behalf of the unborn, was present at the training. Someone in the audience asked my opinion regarding graphic images. When I shared the negative impact they can have with persons who have been traumatized by abortion, Joe Scheidler responded with determined emotion: “I don’t care what anyone ever tells me… I will NEVER stop using these pictures. If these pictures stop ONE WOMAN from entering an abortion clinic and having to spend years dealing with all the things you have been teaching today, then the pictures are worth it. They will save her from years of living hell. We want to save her from ever having to go on a Rachel’s Vineyard weekend!”
As I considered Joe’s words I realized he had a valid point. While we want to protect women who’ve been victims of abortion, we also want to prevent other women from becoming one of these sad statistics, not to mention, helping her to protect her child from this concealed violence. I invited Joe up to the podium to share with our audience how he had experienced the use of pictures.
Because you never know who has experienced an abortion or been directly or indirectly involved with one in the public arena, protecting the psychological integrity of each sensitive human soul who carries the burden of destroying human life, can be a difficult and challenging task.
There are good reasons why these pictures are not used in post abortion healing programs. The images can be quite disturbing to many mothers and fathers, aunts or uncles who have suffered the loss of a little one to abortion. They are also troubling to the grandparents who may have taken their pregnant daughter to have an abortion. These images of abortion’s shocking reality do have potential to trigger traumatic experiences, memories and perceptions.
However, keep in mind that the sight of a pregnant woman, or an ultrasound, or the cry of a newborn can also trigger memories and painful feelings related to abortion. Its important to remember that these everyday reminders are also capable of resurrecting nauseating memories of trauma for a woman who has lost a child in an abortion.
Conversely, the vivid truth spoken through a photograph that can resurrect trauma can also break denial. One teenager writes the following letter about pictures she saw on the Priests for Life website www.priestsforlife.org.
I am 16 years old and I was once pregnant. I had an abortion and now I am terribly sorry. The graphic pictures truly blew my mind. I thought, "Who in their right mind would ever do something like this?" Then I thought again ...me. Tears began to swell in my eyes. I am deeply sorry for the sin I have committed. I hope God forgives me. I was 3 months pregnant and I saw the children about that age in the pictures. I wish I found your website sooner. I will be sure to recommend your website to any girl thinking about abortion.”
When trauma is activated, it’s common to bring forth our normal defenses, anger, rage, justification, and denial -- to protect us from the truth, which may be too painful to deal with. Our psychological defenses serve to protect us from the reality of such horror. We may find it easier to vilify and scapegoat the pro-lifer who holds out the image for our consumption than to face the graphic image of complicated grief and shame buried deep within our hearts.
Those that zealously defend abortion rights often respond to graphic images like a culture of eating disordered bulimics; they simply throw up and out what they refuse to digest. There is no limit to our capacity to blot out truth in favor of that which protects our self-image. Because of the trauma driven zeal invested in protecting abortion rights, we have progressed to the point where the Supreme Court has discerned that it is legal to deliver a fully formed infant, feet first, stab it in the back of the skull and then suck out her brains till the head collapses to insure that the infant is truly born dead. Our moral consciences have truly been devastated by what has been called “the culture of death.” The hard truth, no matter how graphic; can be filtered through the conscious mind like automatically deleted e-mail.
In the meantime, millions of women and men continue to suffer. The higher rates of suicide among post-aborted women have been definitively demonstrated by several record based studies. Researchers in Finland, after examining records for all Finnish women of reproductive age over a seven year period, discovered that women who aborted were seven times more likely to commit suicide in the subsequent year compared to women who carried to term. Aborting women were four times more likely to die from injuries related to accidents, which may actually have been suicide attempts or at least suicidal risk taking.
A similar study that examined records for 150,000 California women eligible for Medicaid found that the aborting women were over three times more likely than delivering women to commit suicide within eight years of their abortion.
In another significant study involving 173,279 low-income women found that death rates following abortion remained elevated for at least eight years. Compared to women who delivered, those who aborted were 154% more likely to die from suicides, and 82% more likely to die from accidents. The higher suicide rates were most pronounced in the first four years following abortion.
Because of this documented reality of suicide risk, we need to address issues that can aggravate the suicidal impulses of post-aborted women. Graphic images alone do not convey our concern for a mother or father who has lost a child through abortion. Without a message of mercy, the truth alone may continue to polarize us from those whose hearts we seek to convert. If we are a people who seek to affirm and protect life, the language and images used to convey our message must be communication that also invites healing and recovery. Our efforts should dismantle the lies with the truth, but the truth must be rooted in love and compassion.
Do graphic images cause additional judgment and disgust with those who have been involved with abortion, rather than fostering an attitude of compassion and respect? As one viewer of graphic images writes: “I have seen the pictures, I cried. I have three beautiful children and would give anything for them. Who ever can kill their baby by abortion or any kind of way is a very sick person. I am against abortions. Keep up the good work and letting people know that it is wrong.”
It is not enough to show that abortion is wrong. It’s important to help our society understand why women and men chose abortion in the first place. Condemnation of the woman does nothing to address or consider the pressure from others, outright coercion, and dire circumstances which lead many women to believe that abortion was her only option. In addition we also fail to acknowledge the connection between repeat abortions (nearly half of all abortions are repeat procedures) and unhealed abortion trauma (see Forbidden Grief-The Unspoken Pain of Abortion by Theresa Burke with David Reardon available at www.rachelsvineyard.org). Without healing, persons that experience trauma often repeat themes and behaviors associated with the traumatic event in an attempt to “master” the deep pain associated with their initial abortion loss. This leads many unhealed woman to find themselves once again in an unplanned pregnancy and making the same tragic decision to abort their unborn child.
Knowing the importance of healing of the women and men involved in abortion, and the many years lost because of obstacles that prevent recovery, we need to recognize that one of the primary hindrances is when post-aborted women and men is a deep sense of shame and fear of judgment. If the message is too threatening, people will instinctively withdrawal from healing and feel only despair and condemnation. For this reason, denial should ideally be broken within the context of a very loving, gentle, trusting environment, where the person can face the agonizing truth braced against numerous and repeated assurances of God’s mercy and capacity to forgive such destruction. People do not surrender their defenses unless they think it is safe - no matter how much pain they are in. We have a responsibility to foster environments that are free from judgment, condemnation, and point to the mercy and compassion of Christ.
This is an essential challenge because there truly is a great risk to the lives and souls of those who have been involved with abortion. Any education done in presenting the reality of abortion must ALWAYS be presented with an invitation to healing and the promise of Gods mercy.... not just a side mention of it, but a real commitment to journey with the individual to help them find freedom and healing.
The post-aborted person who has suffered the reality of abortion and comes to repentance can indeed become one of the greatest advocates of life. Lets help women and men to heal so they can speak the truth by telling their stories - in a way that can’t be argued with or ignored. Silent No More is a shining example of the power of women and men healed of their abortion loss and free to speak the truth in a way that opens hearts and that people can identify with. www.silentnomoreawareness.org.
We have found the pro-life movement to be very supportive and generous to the many ministries like our own involved in post abortion healing (Rachel’s Vineyard and Silent No More are both Ministries of Priests For Life). Post abortion ministries can be seen as the MASH units in the pro-life movement. We work behind the lines, offering a safe, loving, secure place to find hope, healing, and reconciliation. Those in this work have a unique role and often feel a singular vocation to the post abortive person. They often support the larger efforts of the pro-life community, but feel a special responsibility to ensure the emotional and spiritual safety and develop the trust necessary for wounded persons to step forward to grieve and find healing. You will often find a deep sensitivity here to the use of these images and their impact upon the post abortive person.
We are still learning as a movement what strategies will work best in the long run. We must be careful not to tear down our fellow pro-life brethren who are involved in various fronts of this struggle. We may disagree with certain strategy, and it is important for our leadership to come together and respectfully explore these differences. However we must avoid the temptation to divide and polarize those with different responses to the horror of abortion. We must work together to dismantle the ignorance and denial that perpetrates this violence upon Parents and their unborn children.
Finally, all of us involved in the pro-life movement must address our own need for healing. It’s not unusual to feel a lot of grief after a 30-year history of abortion on demand with the knowledge that millions of children have been lost. Our grief can be held captive, turning to anger and rage. In our own pain, we want our fellow friends, family and fellow citizens to share our outrage and grief…and struggle when we find indifference, detachment and at times hostility to our efforts. Over time this can leave us feeling numb, frustrated and angry, isolated by a prevailing culture of denial and lies. The truth of abortion is extremely distasteful and the industry flourishes because of denial. Those who confront this denial will always be marginalized. It is all the more important that we find in the pro life movement communities of prayerful support, reaching out to one another with love and healing. It is out of this foundation of love that we can engage our culture and all those involved in abortion, and offer both the truth of abortion’s reality, and the truth of God’s healing and forgiveness.
For those that use graphic images in their pro life work, here is a message you may want to share with those that are angry or upset after viewing these images:
If you have had an abortion, these images can be deeply disturbing and arouse very painful feelings. The purpose of these pictures is not to condemn those that have had abortions. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a child to abortion can find healing and forgiveness of your pain and grief and reconciliation with your child.
Please understand that we do not wish to disrespect the tiny bodies of these aborted children, but through the presentation of the reality of their deaths, call our country to repentance so that abortion will become an unthinkable choice. We also pray that these images will lead their parents and all post abortive persons to seek reconciliation and healing so that they will not spend years suffering emotional problems, addictions, repeat abortions, and other self-destructive behaviors that many suffer after their participation in abortion.
Through these images we seek to love and honor these aborted children, call our country to repentance, lead parents facing an unplanned pregnancy to give life to their child, and reach out to those wounded by their participation in abortion with the good news of healing.
Kevin and Theresa Burke are founders of Rachel’s Vineyard a Ministry of Priests for life. To find more information on abortion healing, education and weekend healing retreats go to www.rachelsvineyard.org or call our hotline 1 877 HOPE 4 ME or email us at Rachel@rachelsvineyard.org