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Photos in the dynamics of social reform

Fr. Frank Pavone

National Director, Priests for Life

An intriguing question

I recently asked a representative of a major secular news network, "Why not show the American people what an abortion is?" He was intrigued by the question, and we had a good discussion about it. He suggested I should continue asking it, privately and publicly.

I intend to.

Ask any audience around the country whether they have seen any kind of surgery on television. Almost all will raise their hands. But if you ask that same audience how many have seen an abortion on those same networks, none raise their hands. Yet abortion is the single most frequently performed surgery in America. Some claim it is legitimate medicine, and in fact an integral part of women's health. But look at it? Take it out from under the veil of euphemism and abstract language? No way.

Still, there is an even more fundamental and troublesome question to ask, and that is, Why do so many people who oppose abortion also oppose letting it be seen for what it is?

Certainly, showing images of an abortion, and what an abortion does to a baby, has to be done in ways that properly prepare the audience for what they are about to see, and place the matter in the context of the compassionate care which the Church gives to those who are guilty of an abortion. One of the most well-known videos of abortion footage is called "The Harder Truth" (a revision of the previous "Hard Truth"). It comes with a manual which gives clear instructions about how to prepare the audience for viewing. People are told, for example, that they are not being asked to watch anything that they don't want to see. They are invited to avert their eyes, and the video has no narration, so that people do not even have to hear anything they don't want to hear. (The video, incidentally, has been used with great effect in Churches.)

Yet even with all that in place, there is still a great deal of resistance to the notion that we should expose the evil for what it is, bringing it into the light of day for the naked eye to see.

A heresy: we have to be liked to be successful

Part of the resistance, to be sure, is one of those ever-ancient, ever-new heresies: we have to be liked to be successful. I have heard numerous times that we can't show graphic photos, because, essentially, they will turn people against us, and then we won't be able to persuade them of our message.

But on what concrete evidence is it assumed that initial anger at the messenger prevents the message from being delivered? Moreover, is it true that the viewer will always be angry at the messenger? Suffice it to say here that the experience of those who consistently use these graphic images is that the message does get through whether the viewer is angry or not, and that once the image gets in the head, it's impossible to get it out.

Our Lord simply did not follow the doctrine that successful ministry requires being liked. In fact, He promised that fidelity to Him (that is, "success" in being His disciples) would guarantee persecution. It is wrong, of course, to use such a guarantee as an excuse for imprudence, insensitivity, or lack of preparation. But to ignore this promise of the Lord is to risk severing our ministry from the only context in which it ultimately makes any sense: the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Our success will depend more on whether we are respected than liked. Respect flows not from doing what the other finds pleasing, but from what is seen as consistent with principle, courageous, and immune from the temptation to change with the wind.


That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ…

When we ask to "be made worthy of the promises of Christ," it would be well to remember that one of those promises is that we will be hated on account of Him. Some of the Scriptural bases for this truth are as follows:

"All men will hate you because of me . . . ." (Matt. 10:22); "Blessed are you when men hate you ... because of the Son of Man." (Luke 6:22); "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake." (Matthew 5:10); "Woe unto you when all men speak well of you for their fathers did the same to the false prophets." (Luke 6:26); "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you ...." (John 15:20); "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world, makes himself an enemy of God." (James 4:4).

One, indivisible Gospel

Some may object, however, that these promises of persecution have nothing to do with showing images of abortion, but rather with proclaiming the Gospel of salvation. Yet such an objection is ill-founded, because it makes too much of a distinction between Gospel salvation and opposition to injustice. The Gospel makes it clear that the love of God cannot survive in our hearts if we exclude our neighbor from that love (see 1 John 3:17; Matthew 25:31-46), and that to follow Christ to salvation means to carry out what He has commanded us, first among which is to avoid the shedding of innocent blood (see Matthew 19:18)

Proclaiming the good demands exposing evil (Ephesians 5:11) As Pope John Paul II has enunciated at great length in Evangelium Vitae, there is a particular urgency in our day to focus on sins against life itself, and particularly the sins of abortion and euthanasia. The Church has asserted that her teaching on these matters is "unchanged and unchangeable" (Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968), 14; John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995), 62). At the same time, pro-abortion forces declare that the "right to choose" is absolute, and that there will be "no turning back." The formula for an intense and long-lasting struggle is in place. We cannot retreat from it, and have nowhere to go but forward in the great task of transforming society. The United States bishops have called for urgent, priority attention to abortion as "the fundamental human rights issue of our day" (Resolution on Abortion, November 7, 1989; see also Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities: A Reaffirmation, 1985; Living the Gospel of Life, 1998). In short, there is only one, indivisible Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of Life.

Learning from other social reform movements

If we study social reform movements, we find that they always exposed the injustice they were fighting, and that this was an integral key to their success.

The civil rights movement was galvanized, for example, when the 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till, was killed and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but his mother insisted on an open casket funeral so the world could see what was done to her boy. Black Americans everywhere saw the mutilated corpse when the photo was carried in Jet magazine.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was guided by the philosophy he expressed in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he wrote, "Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."

As long as segregation was hidden under the veils of euphemism, or was discussed in words alone, it could not galvanize the opposition required to overcome it. But when the injustice of it was brought before the TV cameras of America as our black brothers and sisters were attacked with dogs, hoses, and other forms of violence, people saw the evil that words alone could not convey.

In the Library of Congress there is an exhibit of about five thousand photographs taken by Lewis Hine in the midst of another struggle for justice. He used these photographs to combat industrial exploitation of children. He said to those who complained, "Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us. But we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor abuses will be creatures of the past."

Government officials have been well aware of the power of photos for social change. President Woodrow Wilson ensured that no photos of the World War I battlefield carnage ever reached the public. These same suppressed photos were later used by isolationists trying to keep the United States out of Word War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a special section of Farm Security Administration to use ¼ million photos to sell his New Deal programs.

Educators likewise are not unaware of the need to graphically portray injustice. Just look at the way the movie "Schindler's List" has been used to educate the young about the holocaust. Some have objected that such a graphic portrayal of such violence may in fact hurt children psychologically. Yet liberals who support the use of the film claim that greater weight must be given to the need to prevent such violence in the first place.

The LA Times (July 8, 1995) reported an effort at Jefferson High School to stop street violence. Freshmen were shown slide after slide of victims blown apart by bullets.

In the courtroom, photographic evidence holds a critical place. "There are no charts, no words, that can convey what these photographs can," argued prosecutor Brian Kelberg in a 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.

Examples can be multiplied, from the efforts to make people aware of famines and starvation, to the horrors of the Vietnam war, to the efforts of environmentalists and animal-rights activists to awaken the public to the abuse of other living creatures.

Isn't it time to summon the courage to expose the injustice we are fighting in abortion, in the same way that successful social reform movements of the past have done?

A conclusion without the evidence

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. What a pro-life person has in mind when he speaks about abortion and what the average American has in mind when he hears the word are two very different things.

One of the key reasons the pro-life movement is not making more progress is that we so often assert before the public that abortion is an act of violence, but do not produce the evidence which would lead people to this conclusion. Photographic evidence is the most trusted source of information in any discipline. It transcends language and logic, and goes straight to the heart, where people are motivated to take action, instead of merely to the head, where people passively entertain all sorts of concepts without any commitment necessarily following.

People absorb impressions rather than substance. Although a photo is just a slice of reality, if it is the right slice, it captures the distilled essence of an event in a way that nothing else can. A photo is even more powerful than a video, since it is the difference between 30 images per second vs. one image for 30 seconds.

The First Amendment has a price

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.

Conclusion: Our Ministry and social reform

As a result of careful study of the dynamics of social reform, a number of significant sectors of the pro-life movement are about to launch major initiatives to show the public, in ways that have not been done before, the photographic reality of the violence of abortion. This will impact the Church; this will challenge the priesthood. We are called and ordained to be prophets of justice. When the greatest injustice in our midst is exposed, we need to be ready to respond. May we respond not with cowardice which dismisses the need to expose the injustice, but rather with the courage to learn from social reform movements of the past, and to reject the heresy that we need to be liked to be successful.

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