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The use of graphic images: Re-thinking pro-life strategy

What we are doing is not enough.

The three biggest expenditures of pro-life money and manpower are crisis pregnancy support services, political activity (electing candidates and lobbying incumbents) and education.

Crisis pregnancy work is important but the vast majority of women in crisis pregnancies don’t go to crisis pregnancy centers for help; they go to abortion clinics. They don’t want help getting through a crisis pregnancy, they want help getting out of it. Moreover, as many as 80% who go to these centers are not abortion-minded!

Political activity is important, but the vast majority of voters don’t care very much about abortion as a political issue.

Education is important but when a culture is reluctant to learn that abortion is an act of violence which kills a baby, and when so many of those who need to hear the message are complicit in the injustice, people choose to turn away from listening to pro-life talks, attending pro-life events, or reading pro-life brochures. If our educational activity relies primarily on the voluntary consent of the audience we are trying to reach, we will not reach the audience we need to reach.

Much pro-life educational activity, moreover, simply assumes the truth of the proposition that abortion is an act of violence which kills a baby. Note here that often we are simply stating a conclusion without providing the evidence that leads to that conclusion. And if people don't want to believe that abortion kills a baby, they won't believe it.

People know and don't know, simultaneously.

In a sense, people already know this is a baby. But there are different kinds of knowing. One can assert that abortion takes a human life, as most Americans do assert. But without seeing it, one can also fail to appreciate the enormity of the evil, and can reconcile the assertion that it is wrong with the assertion that it is necessary, at least sometimes, and especially in the first trimester. This dynamic is reflected in the statistics regarding the positions of Americans on abortion. Most are in the middle, the "conflicted middle," holding that what is admittedly child killing should sometimes be allowed. This "conflicted middle" will decide the outcome of the abortion war in our country, and they have to be moved out of the middle.

When you want people to act to reform deeply embedded trends in society, it is not enough simply to know that the trends are wrong. One must be profoundly disturbed so as to be stirred to action. One must perceive the difference between evil and absolute evil, between tolerable evil and intolerable evil. One must be made angry enough to be willing to sacrifice to end injustice -- and in this sense, the very reason some say pictures don't work because they make people mad are really hitting upon the reason why they do work.

To most Americans, women in crisis pregnancy are real but their unborn babies are unreal (especially during the embryo and early fetal stages of prenatal development). To most Americans, the hardship of a mother’s crisis pregnancy evokes more sympathy than her baby’s death by abortion because the horror of abortion is far less real than the terror of crisis pregnancy.

The experience of those who use horrifying pictures teaches that those who haven’t seen abortion only think they know how evil it actually is. Some say aborting mothers believe God will punish but ultimately forgive abortion; but there are different levels of "believing" and a mother with a functioning conscience will find it easier to trivialize the spiritual consequences of abortion if she has never seen one.

The Respect Life Office director of an East coast Catholic archdiocese recently signed a letter telling a pro-life organization in his state that graphic images "… can make those in a crisis pregnancy more aggressive in pursuing an abortion…." There isn't a shred of evidence which even hints that seeing aborted babies makes women more likely to abort. Yet the president of a well known West coast Evangelical Protestant college made exactly the same statement ten years ago. This paralyzing myth persists despite the fact that many women have told us that they aborted because no one showed them a picture but no woman has ever told us she aborted because she saw a picture.



* * *


Life magazine, September 20, 1943, explained the editors' motive in publishing a disturbingly graphic picture of three American GIs who had been gunned down on a beach in New Guinea:

The reason is that words are never enough. The eye sees. The mind knows. The heart feels. But the words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens. The words are never right.

* * *


On November 28, 1997, The Los Angeles Times carried a story headlined "Pet Billboard Is Real …Too Real for Some." The subhead reads "Ad: Proposed spay/neuter photo shows barrels of euthanized pets. Some object to grim image; others say shock value may shake up public on overpopulation problem."

Imagine driving the kids to school and they see it: a billboard displaying 10 trash cans filled with dead dogs and cats, courtesy of the city of Los Angeles’ animal regulation commission.

They’ve tried gentle persuasion. Now, they’re into pure shock: Sterilize your pets or else.

Some animal rights supporters say they too believe that the shock treatment may be the best way to grab attention, much like the [California] state health department’s anti-smoking campaign. Those graphic public service announcements include a woman smoking a cigarette through a hole in her throat.

‘People will say it’s not good for children to see it,’ [Bill] Dyer [Southern California field representative for In Defense of Animals] said. ‘But I think children will understand it.’

* * *


Canada has taken the disturbing photos of smoking-related cancer victims to an even more shocking level. The San Francisco Chronicle, January 3, 2001 published a Baltimore Sun story headlined "Graphic Labels Confront Canadian Smokers."

With the first stroke of the New Year, Canada ushered in the biggest, boldest and most shocking cigarette warning labels in the world.

The labels carry not just words but alarming color photos that graphically depict the ravages of smoking tobacco.

Depending on which of 16 rotating labels they encounter, smokers fumbling for their next cigarette might see a photograph of a person’s blackened, bleeding gums and the words, ‘Warning: Cigarettes Cause Mouth Disease.’

Some labels contain photos of a diseased heart, a lung tumor, a gangrenous foot, or a sick baby connected to hospital monitors [a color photo accompanying the article depicts an actual diseased, human brain, cut open to expose damaged blood vessels].

‘These are things that really happen to people. It’s not fake,’ said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. ‘If you want to call it shock value – well, some people may be shocked.’

* * *


Et cetera: Viewing own hardened arteries push smokers to quit


Swiss researchers have found that smokers who are forced to look at images of their own hardened arteries are four times more likely to quit than those who only receive counseling. In a study of 153 smokers who had received counseling to quit smoking, researchers randomly assigned one-half to undergo ultrasonography-a quick, non-invasive, inexpensive screening method that can show fatty plaques in the carotid arteries in the neck and the femoral arteries in the upper thigh. According to the findings published in the February issue of Preventive Medicine, six months later, 6% of those who had received only counseling had stopped smoking, compared with 22% of those who had seen their hardened arteries. Lead author Dr. Pascal Bovet of the University Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland, says the procedure could be cost-effective if it motivates smokers to quit, potentially reducing the high cost of treating later health problems associated with smoking. "It is easy for the patient to see the problem on the photograph," Bovet says. "Smoking becomes then not just a remote and hypothetical hazard but a current health problem," he adds (Schorr, Reuters Health, 2/14).

* * *


Parents with children in supermarket shopping carts must often run a gauntlet of disturbing cover photos on the magazines which fill the racks at check-out stands. Setting aside the countless magazines featuring cover photos of scantily clad women in sexually suggestive poses, a recent look at the archives of just a few news magazines revealed gory Newsweek cover photos of a bloody "Teenage victim of last week’s New York school murder," the bloodied face of a Kurdish child attacked by the government of Iraq, the bloodied face of a victim of "the marketplace massacre in Sarajevo," the bloodied face of a Bosnian child, the bloody corpse of shooting victim in New York City, and on the cover of an issue of U.S. News & World Report, a photo of the bloodied face and fractured skull of Reginald Denny, savagely beaten in a race riot in Los Angeles.

* * *


On February 27, 1997, the Raleigh, NC News and Observer joined countless other US newspapers in reporting criticism by Congressman Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, of NBC television’s decision to air Stephen Speilberg’s academy award-winning movie Schindler’s List in early prime-time, when children would see the film’s disturbing nudity, sex, violence and profane language. "Coburn said public outrage was necessary to keep network television from ‘polluting the minds of our children." The New York Times, March 2, 1997, in an article headlined "Congressman Meets Holocaust" further described the firestorm of protest touched off by Rep. Coburn’s critique:

Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who is the only Holocaust survivor in the Congress, said Mr. Coburn should have been more concerned with the children who were killed than with young viewers’ hearing four-letter words.

On February 27, 1997, The Tulsa World had also quoted Rep. Lantos as well as other public officials:

He termed as "petty" Coburn’s concerns about unsupervised children watching the film. ‘He is dead wrong,’ Lantos said.

‘When you want 65 million Americans to watch a 3½ hour film, you don’t start at midnight. These are such petty and certainly misplaced priorities.’

* * *

‘I think this is such a phony argument,’ he said. ‘It is such cheap political grandstanding, my stomach turns.’

* * *

Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, whose family lost members during the Holocaust, said Coburn clearly demonstrated a ‘lack of compassion’ toward its victims.

NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer defended the decision to broadcast the movie during the so-called "family hour" time slot by asserting the need to reinforce public awareness of genocide:

‘I just wonder if Congressman Coburn is aware that there was a Holocaust, that millions of people died and it’s not something anybody should ever forget. NBC is extremely proud of its presentation of this unique award-winning film.’

United Press International (UPI) weighed in on February 26, 1997 with a story entitled "Coburn draws fire for ‘Schindler’ remarks."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Wednesday Coburn was confusing ‘gratuitous violence and historical reality.’ Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., says the film belongs on television to educate children about one of the darkest chapters in human history. Foley agrees it was a brutal, but truthful, telling of a ‘demonic creature who was murdering millions of Jews because they were Jewish.’ But he says it is a story that should be told and remembered without any attempt to ‘camouflage …that evilness.’

* * *


Emmet Till was a fourteen-year-old black schoolboy visiting relatives near the hamlet called Money in the Mississippi Delta. Because he had prankishly flirted with a white shopkeeper, he was brutally beaten and shot. Several days later his corpse was found in the Tallahatchie river, with a gin-mill fan barbwired around his neck. The boy's mother, Mamie Bradley, insisted that his body be shipped back home to Chicago, where it was displayed in an open coffin for four days [a Mississippi sheriff had ordered the coffin sealed to conceal the brutality of the boy's murder]. At least a hundred thousand members of the black community stood in line for hours to view the body. The leading black periodicals, including Jet and the Chicago Defender, juxtaposed earlier photographs of the bright-eyed youngster in shirt and tie with the horrific picture of his bashed and bloated face. The story of the huge outpouring of sympathy – and the lynching behind it – was picked up by the white press as well.

Pictures and stories about Emmett Till's murder transformed many who would fight in the civil rights movement over the next decade.

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In Why We Can't Wait, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mass Market Paperback (2000), wrote of the media coverage of the of the Birmingham movement he helped orchestrate in1963:

The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught – as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught – in gigantic spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.

King had in mind the already famous photographs of the Birmingham struggles – images of protesters attacked by police dogs and battered by high-pressure water cannons. His metaphor is apt: the media as a spotlight that exposes and thereby halts secret actions, a light that imprisons the imprisoners. King knew that cameras were helping to dismantle arsenals of oppression. The organizers of the Birmingham movement staged conflicts for the media to publicize. Some of the clashes between protesters and police became spectacles with immense visual resonance. The Birmingham photographs, published on front pages here and abroad, captured ruthless repression in extraordinarily vivid images. Scenes unthinkable to Americans as American were shown to America and all the world …. [T]he Birmingham photographs were an international embarrassment.

* * *


On September 14, 2000, Shawn Jackson lead Detroit police to the body of his seven-month-old baby daughter. The child’s name was Miracle. The man admitted to suffocating the infant and the Detroit Free Press published a huge, front-page, color photo, above the fold, of a Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Officer worker carrying the body of the baby in the garbage bag in which it was discovered. The child’s body is partially visible through the translucent plastic of the white bag. The following day, they paper defended itself against an equally huge outpouring of anger from readers who were scandalized by the publication of the gruesome photo. The paper said:

We publish newspaper stories every week about beaten, abused, tortured and murdered children, not just from metro Detroit but from across Michigan. Those reports too rarely generate outrage or a call to action.

* * *

We regret that some readers were offended by the picture. Still, it is important to remind everyone that our entire community should be offended by the death of Miracle Jackson.

The Free Press got it right but the indignation expressed on the paper’s jam-packed letters to the editor page suggested reader naïveté, selfishness and dare we say stupidity. Ellie Sharrow complained that "The front-page photo made that poor baby look like kitchen trash." Ms. Sharrow missed the point that it was neither the newspaper nor even the photo which made the baby look like "kitchen trash" but a father who treated his daughter as disposable. Michael Poteraia asserted that "The picture added nothing to the story." That the picture motivated Mr. Poteraia to write was the best evidence that it added emotional impact to a frighteningly routine story. The dominant emotion was pain.

Jane Haslett proved it by disclosing that "My beginning journalism students were reading Friday’s Free Press when one student became so disturbed by the graphic and distasteful photo of the county worker carrying the remains of little Miracle Jackson that she had to leave the room in tears." Lola Horn also felt that pain and wrote "This is the most despicable, cruel, improper news reporting I have ever seen." But Ms. Horn seems madder at the Free Press for upsetting her feelings than she is at Mr. Jackson for killing his daughter. In that same vein, Mary Hyduk groused that "Journalistic integrity and human compassion were not top priorities in the selection of that particular photo." She apparently defines "integrity" and "compassion" in terms of the way the Free Press’ treats its readers instead of the way the culture treats its children.

Beth Andrachek said "No one had respect for the child when it was living. Could you at least have given it some respect in its death?" But what could have been more respectful than the paper’s attempt to impart meaning to a senseless act of violence by making it too painful to ignore.

Viki Staniszewski asked "What’s wrong with you people? You owe all your readers an apology. Babies are not garbage." But many babies are in fact garbage and have been since 1973. Some of them are being killed after they are old enough to survive birth and some during the actual process of being born. A better question may be "what’s wrong with Viki Staniszewski?" and everyone else who is sleep-walking through this slaughter. Who could be unaware that the bodies of these "trash babies" are then ground-up in garbage disposals or incinerated with municipal waste? Perhaps it is Ms. Staniszewski who owes someone an apology for expressing no outrage that the U.S. Supreme Court makes it legal to kill a babies only slightly younger than baby Miracle.



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George J. Annas, writing for the New England Journal Medicine, January 11, 2001, ends his analysis of the [Carhart] case with an observation about the larger abortion struggle: "Maybe, in the debate over abortion, we are all past the point at which facts and logic matter." There is a sense in which he is right. More than ever, decision-making is animated by feelings rather than analysis. Shocking pictures are indispensable for influencing that process precisely because they evoke emotion which crashes through psychic defenses impenetrable to "facts and logic."

* * *


Jewish columnist Ben Stein echoes this sentiment in the May, 1998 issue of American Spectator magazine:

... [Pro-abortionists] cannot look at their handiwork or the handiwork they defend. Across the country, they shrink from photos of the babies killed in abortions. Through their mighty political groups, the pro-abortionists compel TV stations to refuse advertisements showing partial birth and other abortion artifacts. They will not even allow viewers (or themselves, I suspect) to see what their policies have wrought. They are, at least to my mind, like the Germans who refused to think about what was happening at Dachau and then vomited when they saw -- and never wanted to see again.

* * *


Naomi Wolf, in an essay entitled "Pro-Choice and Pro-Life," appearing in The New York Times, April 3, 1997, says "When someone holds up a model of a six-month-old fetus and a pair of surgical scissors, we say ‘choice’ and we lose."

The previous year, in a piece called "Our Bodies, Our Souls" appearing in New Republic, October 16, 1996, Wolf was even more explicit:

The pro-choice movement often treats with contempt the pro-lifers’ practice of holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics …. [But] how can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted with them, then we are making the judgment that women a re too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a decision. This view is unworthy of feminism.

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