Should We Use Graphic Images?

Fr. Frank Pavone

July 20, 1995

Should graphic photos of babies who have been killed by abortion be used by pro-lifers who demonstrate on public sidewalks?

Even among those who oppose abortion, answers to this question vary. The dispute was recently brought to my attention again by a news article describing the concern of residents of a certain area that the graphic photos used by local pro-lifers disturbed the children.

I have demonstrated against abortion on the public sidewalks of almost every major city in America. I have used graphic images and have watched their effect. I am convinced they should be used, and here are some of the reasons.

1) The word abortion has lost practically all its meaning. Not even the most vivid description, in words alone, can adequately convey the horror of this act of violence. Abortion is sugar-coated by rhetoric which hides its gruesome nature. The procedure is never shown in the media. Too many people remain either in ignorance or denial about it, and hence too few are moved to do something to stop it. Graphic images are needed. A picture is worth a thousand words -- and in this battle, it can be worth many lives as well.

2) Graphic images of abortion have saved lives. One example is a letter I have from Violet Sherringford of New Jersey, who went to an abortion facility and found pro-life protesters there. "The posters they displayed, though very graphic, did succeed in bringing me back to reality and in conveying the horrible mutilation and dismemberment inflicted on the unborn child.... I decided to have the baby. It was the best decision I ever will make."

3) We use graphic images to save lives from other kinds of violence - I've seen graphic drawing by first and second graders accompanied by the words "Drugs Kill"." I've seen smashed cars put on public display with the sign, "Drunk Driving Kills." The LA Times 7/8/95 reported an effort at Jefferson High School to stop street violence. Freshmen were shown slide after slide of victims blown apart by bullets. The anti-war movement in America was given momentum in the early '70's by a famous photo of a napalmed girl. Efforts to save the starving have been spurred on by images of malnourished children. The examples can go on and on.

4) The fact that the use of such images is disturbing does not mean such use is wrong. The free-speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment apply even to speech which is disturbing, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld (see The Right to Protest, ACLU: Gora et al .). Such disturbance is part of the price we pay for freedom. People might also be disturbed, annoyed, and upset by the blaring sirens of an ambulance rushing through the neighborhood. Yet the noise serves a purpose: People's lives are at stake, and the ambulance must be given the right of way.

5) I too am concerned about little children who see graphic images. I am also concerned about the littler children those images depict. The key factor that will make the difference in how children react to seeing anything disturbing is the role of their parents, who are present in a loving and comforting way, answering their questions and calming their fears. But to say that the presence of children in a neighborhood forbids the use of graphic images leads to an absurd conclusion, for what neighborhoods have no children? Is free speech to be limited to adult-only communities? And even then, what is to be done for the adults who complain?

It seems to me, furthermore, that if we find it difficult to explain images of abortion to our children we will find it even more difficult to explain why we didn't do more to stop abortion itself. The bottom line is that if graphic images of abortion are too terrible to look at, then the abortions themselves are too terrible to tolerate. We need to expose the injustice, and then direct our displeasure toward those allow the injustice to continue, not toward those who speak against it.


Following is a letter on this same topic:

July 20, 1995

Dear Editor,

"There are no charts, no words, that can convey what these photographs can," argued prosecutor Brian Kelberg in a regent dispute over whether photos of the slashed murder victims could be shown to O.J. Simpson's jurors.

The defense had argued that the photos were too distressing and sickening, and should not be shown. Charts and diagrams were suggested as an alternative. But the judge allowed the photos.

Similar concern was raised in a Congressional Subcommittee hearing in June when diagrams of the partial-birth abortion procedure showed how scissors are placed in the child's head prior to its exit from the birth canal. Some raised a complaint that it was inappropriate to show the brutal diagrams in the halls of Congress. (Never mind that the reality is allowed, just don't show the drawings.) This incident in Congress reminded me of the scene in the movie Judgment at Nuremburg where the films of the Nazi atrocities were actually shown in Court. When the film ended and the lights came back on, the defense argued that it was not appropriate to show the films in court.

Social evils cannot be addressed unless they are faced. Denial gets us nowhere. "These photographs show what happened to these two people," Mr. Kelberg correctly stated. It's time more people saw the photos and films of what has happened to some 30 million babies by abortion. Anyone willing to defend abortion ought to be willing to see one, and those who fight abortion ought to be willing to expose it. Only then will enough people feel the appropriate sense of outrage needed to make the sacrifices necessary to end this injustice. Prudence must be used in all things, but prudence also involves enduring discomfort in order to root out evil. Just ask Violet, who wrote to a Catholic paper a few years ago, and said that on her way to get an abortion she saw graphic posters that brought her "back to reality." She decided to have her baby. She said, "It was the best decision I will ever make."


Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director

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