Coming face-to-face with unspeakable horror

Fr. Frank Pavone
​National Director, Priests for Life
Priests for Life, Titusville, FL

January 01, 2000

Just one photograph can capture the horrible truth about racism, or war, or abortion

Our Sunday Visitor


By Gerald Ruff

Our local newspaper ran a photograph recently of two black men hanging dead from a tree - lynched - in Duluth, Minn., in the early 1900s.

It is a grotesque and violent image, the lifeless bodies of the black men surrounded by a group of Duluth citizens whose faces range in expressions from cocky mirth to numbness to the beginnings of horror. Blown up large on the page, the sordid and sickening picture gave graphic representation to the racist hatred that is part of our not-so-distant past - and which too often persists today.

In a recent film, "The Music Box," a widowed immigrant to the United States is accused of Nazi war crimes. A dedicated father and solid U.S. citizen, the man is brought to trial, where a lineup of survivor-victims of Nazi atrocities verbally confront him, and us in the movie audience, with horrifying descriptions of his alleged acts. Despite the victims' convincing testimony, the man is ultimately found innocent.

Shortly after his acquittal, however, his daughter discovers a set of photographs of her father the Nazi committing the horrible crimes against humanity he has steadfastly denied. In the movie, which is fiction, a national newspaper subsequently prints on its front page the horrifying photographs of the man brutalizing his Jewish victims.

During the Vietnam War, the media daily carried footage and frontpage photographs of the horrible reality of what was happening in that faraway land. Finally, at least partly as a result of those images, an informed public overwhelmingly opposed the U.S. military involvement there, and our country's participation was ended.

Recently, I received in the mail a form letter from a pro-life organization soliciting my participation in an antiabortion awareness campaign. Included with the letter, discreetly in its own envelope, was the photograph of the mutilated head of an aborted baby. The campaign, the letter informed me, involved sending this photograph around the country to increase awareness of and opposition to abortion.

As I say, the photograph was graphic, in fact, sickening. The head -- half a head, really, from the nose down the face was missing -- had been retrieved from a plastic trash bag outside an abortion mill in Houston. Despite its mutilation (a brief explanation on the back of the photograph suggests the disfiguration is the work of alley-scavenging mice, rats and dogs), the head was unmistakably a baby's: the fine, wet hair matted against the perfect crown of the baby's skull; the child's ears, gentle and perfectly shaped as a seashell; the eyes, those "windows of the soul," delicately yet tightly closed; the nose, straight and strong, already distinctly this unnamed child's. But then the face simply falls away into nothing, just a trail of internal organs where the child's chin and mouth should have been.

Many in our country would argue that photographs such as this should not be part of the abortion debate. They are offensive, they say, disgusting and unfair. Nor is it just those who favor legalized abortion that argue this way, but many pro-lifers as well.

I, too, have had my doubts about the use of photographs and other visual representations of aborted babies in the fight against abortion. I do not want to offend, to be labeled a fanatic, to turn people off to my cause or myself.

But the more I think about it, the more I contemplate that absolutely sickening picture of that dead baby's head, the more I am convinced that photographs do belong in this debate. Words are wonderful, powerful and good, but we also need to see what is happening here. Just as we have to look at photographs of lynched black men, Jewish corpses, lifeless Vietnamese children, so we need to look at the frozen and horrid images of the millions of unborn babies torn from their mothers' wombs.

These horrible, sickening images, and our own revulsion at them, demand a response. And it may be that those who most strongly reject them are those who most need to come face-to-face with the unspeakable horror of all our dead children.

Ruff writes from LaCrosse, Wis.

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