Winning the War on Images

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director of Priests for Life
November 05, 2008

The battle to restore protection to our preborn brothers and sisters is in many ways a war of words, and a lot of effort has been invested in the pro-life movement to teach people how to win the war of words. There are, in the end, a limited number of slogans and arguments used by the defenders of abortion, and every one of these verbal weapons can be readily counteracted by the truth that the pro-life position contains. Ultimately, there is no way to rationally defend the killing of little babies.

Defenders of abortion have actually known this for a long time, and therefore have taken the offensive by using the power of images to appeal to the emotions of the audience and overpower the reasoning process. The power of imagery is great. Its effect is evident if you examine the attitudes of the American people on abortion. In a 1992 Command Research poll, for example, 73 percent stated that the fetus is a human baby and "killing is wrong." Nearly three fourths of those same people, however, said that society should not have a say in whether a woman should have an abortion or not. What accounts for this split thinking? How can someone say society should not have a say in stopping the admittedly wrong killing of human babies? The answer at least partly lies in the emotional power of the images presented to the public by pro-abortion forces.

But that power need not be reserved to defenders of abortion. We can use it just as effectively. Simply because we have the upper hand in terms of reason does not mean we should resort exclusively to reason. Simply because our arguments are better does not justify ignoring other ways to persuade the public. Reason must be used, but reason is not enough. We live in a society in which people spend more time absorbing images than thinking. Human reason is like a little boat tossed on a tempestuous sea.

There are four basic areas of images with which the pro-life movement needs to be concerned, the first of which has been handled rather successfully, whereas the other three require more work. The four are the image of the preborn child, the image of the mother both before and after abortion, the image of the abortionist, and the image of the pro-life movement itself. Let's explore both what the defenders of abortion have done in these areas, and what the pro-life movement has done and can do in the future.

The Preborn Child

One of the major reasons abortion continues is that the victims are usually unseen. The fact that they are unseen makes them seem unreal. Out of sight, out of mind. Both the humanity of the preborn child and the violence of the act of abortion are realities that remain hidden to most people.

Yet these children are not totally unseen. The more medical science advances, the more visible they become. Ultrasound has advanced to such a degree of perfection that there are very sharp ultrasound images that can be used as the basis of surgery on the preborn child. 

The pro-life movement has succeeded well in bringing the image of the preborn child to the public. This in part accounts for the acknowledgement of a majority of Americans that the fetus is a human baby.

The defenders of abortion have basically dealt with this image in two ways. The first is to attempt to keep it invisible, never speak about it, and even call it "offensive!" When the image of a newly developing member of one's own species is called offensive, one must wonder about either the sanity or the survival of the species!

The second manner of dealing with the image of the child is to say, "So what? We know it is human, but sometimes one has the right to kill." Such a statement cannot be made, however, without the use of some of the other images described below.

Another aspect of the visual presentation of the preborn child is the imagery of the child destroyed by abortion. Such imagery will have different effects on different people. I have seen enough cases of repentance brought about by such images as to be convinced that it is extremely valuable. There are principles governing the presentation of such material. The bottom line is that no words can adequately describe the horror of abortion. Just as is true in situations of famine, war, or the random destruction of human life by other cruelties, people cannot be aroused to the level of indignation necessary for them to take action until they actually see the atrocity.

The pro-life movement needs to continue presenting the image of the child in the womb, whether by means of the new video mentioned above, or by means of simple things like the Precious Feet pin. Most who see this pin are surprised to know that a child at 10 weeks after conception is already so perfectly formed. (If they don't believe it, simply invite them to the public library!)

The reality of the victim of abortion is also communicated powerfully by having the survivors of abortion speak out. There are an increasing number of those who were actually scheduled to be aborted but survived either because the abortion failed or because mom changed her mind at the last minute. Sarah Smith, for example, is a woman whose twin brother was aborted, as she almost was. "My mother's choice," she movingly declares, "was my death sentence." Sarah and those like her put a face on abortion, a face that the public needs to see.

The Mother

Before abortion

An area where a lot more work is needed is to convey the accurate image of the woman who is seeking an abortion. Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has done extensive research into why women choose abortion, has said that such a woman does not choose abortion the way she chooses a Porsche or an ice-cream, but rather the way an animal caught in a trap chooses to gnaw off its own leg.

The reality of the pain, confusion, fear and desperation of the woman who obtains an abortion is described in Ms. Mathewes-Green's book Real Choices, as well as in thousands of case testimonies that have been collected by the Elliott Institute in Springfield, Illinois.

The image that many have of a woman who chooses what she wants and knows what she is choosing is completely different from the reality. In one of the testimonies I have, for example, the woman states that as she was sitting in the waiting room of the abortion facility, she was waiting for someone to tell her not to do it. Another, whose baby I had the privilege of baptizing, was also sitting in the waiting room, but when she saw pro-life people praying outside the facility, she changed her mind and came out. She could not have been more grateful to those people for being there and, as she said, saving both her baby's life and her life. Furthermore, I have actually seen young women literally dragged into abortion facilities by their fathers, mothers, and boyfriends.

The fact is that women do not get abortions because of freedom of choice. They get them because they feel they have no freedom and no choice. One survey of women I have indicates that some 63% felt forced by others to have the abortion, while 74% felt forced by circumstances. The image and testimony of a woman so pressured that she has her own child killed is hardly the image conjured up by the slogan "freedom of choice."

The public needs to feel what these women feel, and to hear them testify to the fact that the abortion story in America is one of slavery, not freedom. The testimony of such women, in public gatherings and through the printed word, is one means of conveying those feelings.

After abortion

The dominant image that pro-abortion forces use to represent the woman who has had an abortion is one who is now "free to pursue her own destiny," and one whose "problem has been solved." Again, it is an image that has nothing to do with reality. It ignores the fact that abortion is a trauma, solves nothing, and introduces a host of problems for the rest of one's life.

In 1992, the National Women's Coalition for Life was established. This is an umbrella group of fourteen pro-life women's organizations, several of which are specifically post-abortion groups. As more have abortions, more learn the hard way how much pain it brings. Yet these women are determined not to let that pain be wasted. They speak out about the nightmares, the loss of self-esteem, the broken relationships, the physical problems, and the other forms of devastation that follow abortion. Giving these women a voice and letting their message reach as many as possible is a critical antidote to the image of abortion as a solution or some type of benefit for women.

The Providers of Abortion

The dominant image of providers of abortion is one of compassionate men and women who provide a much appreciated medical service in clean and carefully regulated (because legal!) facilities. Not only are they compassionate, the image continues, but they are even heroic, as they provide this service amidst the criticisms of those who oppose abortion.

There are two strong antidotes to this false image.

One is the testimony of those who used to work in the abortion industry and no longer do. I know many of them personally. Some of them speak publicly; hundreds do not. Their stories need to be heard, as they explain the hatred that so many abortion providers have for women. One friend of mine described how the abortionist she worked for deliberately used a method that caused more pain because "he said he liked to inflict pain on women." Video and audio tapes of such testimony are available. (See the conclusion of this article for information on how to contact Priests for Life.)

The other powerful tool is the book Lime 5, which describes documented cases of how the abortion industry deceives, injures, sexually abuses, and kills women in so-called safe and legal abortion facilities. Besides the fallacy that what is legal is moral, there is a deadly fallacy that what is legal is safe. The image conveyed by the slogan "safe and legal abortion" makes one feel that because it is legal, it is safe. A reading of Lime 5 proves that this does not follow. When those who are not doctors pose as doctors in abortion facilities, and when those facilities do not even sterilize the instruments, it is time to clean things up. Abortion providers have a serious image problem: it is far too good. (Contact Priests for Life for information on how to obtain this book.)

The Pro-Life Movement

A final area in which a truer image needs to be communicated is that of the pro-life movement itself.

This movement to defend the youngest members of the human family is the largest, most selfless and peaceful grassroots movement in the history of America. The majority of the people, time, energy, and resources of this movement are directed to providing alternatives to abortion. Without pay or popularity, people of all walks of life take such women into their homes, provide them friendship and acceptance, pay their medical expenses, set them up with employment, and give them the confidence to be good mothers. There are, in fact, more crisis pregnancy assistance centers in America than there are abortion facilities. This is a movement that loves a segment of humanity that as of now cannot love them back, and cannot thank or even acknowledge them. This, furthermore, is not a movement that says, "Love the child and forget the mother." Rather, it is a movement that says, in word and action, "Why can't we love them both?"

Contrast this reality with the image so often painted of the pro-life movement: an insensitive, fringe element bent on violence and on depriving women of their legitimate rights!


Images are powerful. They define reality for people, especially when they come from that electronic tube we call television. Yet when it comes to abortion, the women who obtain it, those who provide it, and those who fight it, the images usually contradict the reality. The pro-life movement has proved itself quite capable of winning the arguments over the morality of abortion. In order to end abortion, however, it must also win the war of images. It has the tools, some of which I have mentioned. The task now lies before us to use those tools daily and in an expert way, whether in the mass media or in conversation with a neighbor. As we accomplish that task, it will once again be clear that the truth will set us free!

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: