Defending Public Abortion Images (Part 1)

March 27, 2014 | 12 comments

Last week, a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara allegedly assaulted a pro-life activist and stole her and her sister's signs containing graphic images of abortion. The picture above shows the professor, Dr. Mireille Miller-Young, accompanied by two other students who helped her carry the signs away.

While almost everyone thinks people should have the right to publicly display images of abortion (except for pro-abortion activists like this professor who say it's “visual terrorism”), many people, including pro-life advocates, are divided over whether it is prudent or even morally right to publicly display such images.

In this post, and another one to follow next week, I will make the case that pro-life advocates should publicly display graphic images of abortion. I'll first address the following fundamental question – is it wrong to publicly display graphic images of abortion?

A Moral Assessment

Catholic morality takes into account the object of an act (or what the act is willed towards), the intentions behind the act, and the circumstances surrounding the act in order to determine if the act is right or wrong (CCC 1750).

In regards to the object of displaying images of abortion in public, I don’t see any reason to think that this is an intrinsically evil act, or one that is evil by its very nature (unlike abortion itself which is intrinsically evil). Saying the public display of abortion photos is intrinsically evil would mean that any display of a graphic image in public is intrinsically evil, which seems to be a stretch to say the least.

In regards to intentions, these girls simply wanted to educate people about the evil of abortion, which seems like a good intention to me. They may know that their images will upset people, but I doubt that upsetting people is their primary intention. If it were, then you could make a case that they were doing something wrong. But it’s okay to unintentionally upset people if you have a good reason to perform the upsetting action. For example, the doctor who tells a patient he has cancer will no doubt upset him, but the good of the diagnosis outweighs the unintended emotional stress associated with it.

In regards to circumstances, there may be cases where the act of showing abortion images is wrong even if the person showing the images has good intentions. For example, showing a captive audience of kindergarteners these pictures would scandalize them and serve no good purpose. The fact that the pro-lifers chose to display these images at a college campus, which is relatively child-free and has lots of adults who might choose abortion in the near future, shows they had an appropriate audience in mind. I think its safe to say there weren’t any circumstances that make what they did immoral.[i]

Depersonalize the Unborn?

So are there any general moral arguments against showing images of abortion in public? Marc Barnes over at the Bad Catholic blog has made one such argument that I think is worthy of attention. Barnes claims that images of abortion depersonalize unborn children and since it is wrong to objectify someone, or “use them as a means to an end,” this makes displaying abortion images immoral.

However, most of this post just criticized having an attitude that de-personalized the unborn, or in his words, “holding ‘aborted fetuses’ above our heads and not particular persons.” I agree with Barnes that it's bad for pro-lifers to not treat the children in these images with respect, such as by acting jolly or laughing while standing in front of abortion pictures.

But when I and other pro-life advocates use these pictures in public we try to keep a serious and attentive demeanor. We also routinely ask people if “this child,” or “he” or “she” deserved to be victimized through abortion.  Since its possible, if not routine, for pro-lifers to show these pictures without having a “de-personalizing” attitude toward the unborn, I think the objection is moot.

What Barnes seems to be most concerned about is using these images to “fictionalize” unborn children, or turn them into objects that are used to promote a cause instead of recognizing them as people who are worthy of respect. But Barnes has created a false dilemma. An image can be both a record of an infinitely valuable person and be a tool to achieve good social ends without depersonalizing the victim in the image.

The Civil Rights Catalyst

Consider the famous photograph of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in 1955. His mother allowed the photo of his disfigured corpse to be published in JET magazine and many people now say that this photo was the catalyst for the civil rights movement. Did the use of this photo reduce Emmett to what Barnes would call a “corporate logo” for the civil rights movement? Certainly not![ii]

Rather, the picture of Emmett and the pictures of aborted unborn children personalize the victims of injustice, especially injustices that can be hidden with clever euphemisms like, “abortion is a hard choice” or "lynchings are just the way things have always been.”

Barnes might object that Mrs. Till gave permission for her son’s photo to be used in this way but we do not have permission from the parents of aborted children to display them in public. But what if Mrs. Till had participated in her own child’s lynching and was not available to give permission for photos of Emmett to be published? Would that have made it immoral for JET magazine to publish the evidence of the outrageous injustice committed against him and many other children like Emmett? I think not.[iii]

In addition, there are many images of brutalized, anonymous born human beings that are displayed for the purpose of educating the public. If those displays are not wrong, then how could abortion displays that contain brutalized anonymous unborn human beings be wrong?

The Holocaust Comparison

After his initial post, Barnes wrote a follow-up to answer a common objection to his argument. Namely, if it’s wrong to publicly display images of abortion, then isn’t it wrong to publicly display images of the Nazi Holocaust in museums, textbooks, or public exhibitions? Barnes essentially claims that Auschwitz and abortion are “apples and oranges.” It's okay to show pictures of the Nazi holocaust, but not pictures of abortion because the intent in each case differs. He writes,

“The holocaust was displayed for the purpose of displaying the holocaust. The slain were being shown, not used. The pictures re-presented a reality. They were not efforts to achieve a result. This cannot be said of our current use of images of those murdered by abortion, which proclaim to achieve the results of political and ideological conversion.”

But Barnes is wrong. We can prove the Holocaust happened without using pictures of the deceased. We can use eyewitness testimony, diaries, photographs of the crematoria and gas chambers, etc. The pictures of the victims aren’t merely historical artifacts that demonstrated the Holocaust happened. The pictures of the dead are used to underscore how evil the holocaust was and to “achieve the political result” of a world where the Holocaust will never happen again. For crying out loud, the motto of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is “Never Again”!

Publicizing past images of injustice helped restore the personhood of the victims of these evils, as can be seen in the campaigns to end slavery, lynchings, and child labor. Showing the reality of who is aborted and what abortion does to these small human beings does not “depersonalize” them. Rather, calling the goal of restoring the right-to-life for these humans, “political and ideological conversion,” is depersonalizing.

Barnes is right that there is a big difference between holocaust pictures and abortion pictures, but it’s one he doesn’t mention in his post. Namely, The Nazi Holocaust isn’t still happening.  If pictures of Holocaust victims can be morally used to prevent hypothetical future Holocausts, then it logically follows that pictures of victims of abortion can be used to help stop the currently legal, mass killing of unborn human beings.

Is it a good idea?

I don’t think there are any good arguments for the claim that showing images of aborted children in public is immoral. But maybe the issue isn’t about morality but about pragmatism?  Will using these images create more harm than good for the pro-life movement and that’s why they should not be used? Are there cases where, from a tactical perspective, we definitely should not use these images? I’ll examine these issues next week in part II of my series.


[i] I do believe that not all public places are ideal or appropriate for the display of abortion photos, an issue I will address in part II. However, the university should definitely be one of those places as it is supposed to be “the marketplace of ideas” where uncomfortable truths are debated in a spirit of academic inquiry.

[ii] Now, Barnes might object that it didn’t because we know Emmett’s name and because of this we still dignify him as a person. However, the unborn children in abortion photos are nameless and as a result become objects in our quest to end abortion. First, some of these children are not nameless but have been named by the people who found them abandoned in dumpsters. Second, the fact that these children have no names is a testimony to the injustice committed against them as persons. Not only were they deprived of life; they were also deprived of an officially recorded name so that their life could be properly mourned within the human community. The victims in genocide photos are often nameless but this does not mean images of them contribute to their depersonalization. If anything, they become persons, and not just a statistic in an encyclopedia article.

[iii] Plus, we probably have permission from the abortion providers who become the owners of these children’s bodies after they are signed over like medical waste. Who else’s “permission” do we need?

After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Trent Horn earned a bachelor's degree in history from Arizona State University and a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College.

Trent is a...

Making The Case For Life
No matter how hard you try, talking with your friends and family about abortion too often winds up at one extreme or the other—either tempers and emotions get out of hand or to keep the peace you agree to disagree and move on to another subject. Neither approach serves the pro-life cause, says Trent Horn. In his new DVD, Making the Case for Life, he shows you how to avoid those extremes, presenting a roadmap for talking about abortion that really gets people engaged on the gravest moral question of our age.

Comments by Members

#1  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

One thing is for sure, if you have a heart the pictures of abortions will break it. The sad part of reality is that the pro abortion crowd lacks in compassion. If the goal is to make them see how evil abortion is by showing the graphic pictures, it is a waste of time, but if the goal is to open the eyes of others who may consider an abortion, it is well worth showing. The bottom line is the pro abortionist hates the truth, and when confronted with it they become angry. That's why they snatch the signs, they are affraid someone will see abortion for what it really is, a senseless act of hate and evil. Showing the pictures is an act of love, hiding the truth is just the opposite. Just remember, a lot of people also despise the graphic images of Christ on the cross! The images tell a story, one that needs to be told, just like the images of the holocaust. Abortion is a legal holocaust against the most innocent, a war on God's children.

March 27, 2014 at 10:16 pm PST
#2  ds thorne - Fairfax, Virginia

Before you show such an image, you should closely read _Unplanned_ by Abby Johnson. As she recounts, she worked first as a counselor in a Planned Parenthood clinic, and then switched to the other side - and so is in a rare position of understanding both sides in close personal terms. She said that the graphic images, if anything, heighten the resolve to women to go through with it, whereas the softer approach won hearts. She reminds us that especially young women in difficult pregnancies mostly need someone to be understood.
~DS Thorne,

April 1, 2014 at 12:18 pm PST
#3  Lynda Hunt - rochester, New York

I Abby Johnson's book CLOSELY. In her own words, her conversion came about by a GRAPHIC. She was assisting with an ultrasound guided abortion and the image she saw made it impossible to deny life.

April 1, 2014 at 5:45 pm PST
#4  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

That is why ultrasound laws are so important. Seeing life, the heartbeat and limbs moving, make much more impact than images of death. I wish I could give my life to save all of these innocent babies, so sad.

April 1, 2014 at 6:36 pm PST
#5  Lynda Hunt - rochester, New York

I agree that ultrasounds are pivotal. However, for Abby, it was the image of death that converted her....

April 2, 2014 at 2:38 pm PST
#6  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

My wife speaks of her often and highly, I guess I have some reading to do tonight. I so much wish I could save all of these babies from their death, nothing breaks my heart more!

April 2, 2014 at 4:27 pm PST
#7  Lynda Hunt - rochester, New York

Chris..hopefully you gleaned from my posts that I am a faithful prayer warrior who DOES use the graphic images in front of the abortion mills. Many lives have been saved! I am fine if people are not comfortable doing likewise. However I get very upset when we are villified and told we cause MORE deaths. In New York we are the last line defense before the baby is killed...we are very limited in our ability to talk with the families who are entering due to large "buffer" zones and other restrictions. In my heart I LONG to have closer contact...

April 3, 2014 at 9:24 am PST
#8  Lynda Hunt - rochester, New York

I also hold a beautiful crucifix......

April 3, 2014 at 10:09 am PST
#9  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Lynda, you are brave, courages, and your love for the most innocent is a God send. No one should dare villify you for the images you show, those images show the truth. That kind of truth should rally the lovers of life and only offend those who want to hide the truth about abortion. I know how you feel about the buffer zones, it is pure agony to be so close to the mothers and not being able to talk to them and give them a big hug from God that if they keep their babies everything will be alright. That's all they need is just a little love and they wouldn't do it. Instead they are greeted by darkness, people encouraging them to go through with it, people lying to them telling them it will be ok. These greeters are consumed by evil and greed, they have satan whispering in their ears. God bless you Lynda for all you do and for going to war against the Gosnell's of this world. You will be in my prayers often and although we are sepersted by the miles my heart and soul will be with you as you carry the Cross of Christ into battle. Keep up the good fight and keep saving lives!!

April 4, 2014 at 3:44 am PST
#10  David Sharland - Blacksburg, Virginia

I am anxious to hear Trents follow up to this article, as the practical applications may speak more clearly to why this is a good idea or not.

April 10, 2014 at 9:55 am PST
#11  Sidney Blanchet - South Bend, Indiana

I am emphatically pro-life for starters but I am disturbed by graphic images across the board--for any cause. Let me start by asking you, Trent, if you would advocate showing high school students pictures of mangled teenagers in car accidents to deter drunk or reckless driving? Or by the same token, what do you think about, for example, the New York Times showing graphic pictures of American soldiers blown to bits by land mines in Afghanistan? Clearly graphic images are being used by terrorists aplenty. Do we want to emulate them EVEN IF you protest that you use a sober demeanor?

I live in South Bend and passed by Notre Dame almost every day during the protests over President Obama's visit. A light plane flew over the Golden Dome on a daily basis pulling a banner with a picture of an aborted fetus. Also, pro-life protesters stood outside the Main Gates of the university with their children (!) holding enormous pictures of aborted fetuses. My sense was that the effort was almost entirely counterproductive. Perhaps the signs turned a few people around, I don't know, no one told me they did but I do know they turned off hundreds if not thousands more. This is not "effective" at a minimum.

I think ultrasounds of living, breathing, healthy, whole babies in utero are doing far more to cause people to realize that a growing fetus is real, alive, a baby. Almost anyone can extrapolate from an ultrasound that an abortion will destroy---i.e. kill a baby. If they choose to take that step regardless I can't see that the end result--i.e. the mangled corpse of the baby is going to deter them.

Ultimately I'm far more in favor of giving these innocent little victims a funeral and a grave rather than photographing them to be used to shock others. Sadly for myself the tactic of graphic images by ANY (pro-life, anti-war, Mothers Against Drunk Driving) group makes me cut a wide berth around that group. I think it's a mistake to turn off natural allies like myself.

January 28, 2015 at 4:59 pm PST
#12  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Sidney, I can not say if the shocking images are effective to show to the opposite side, but I can say for my wife and I that we are effected by them. When I see a picture of an aborted mangled up innocent baby, my heart breaks, and my broken heart can serve up a huge heaping of determination. I pray that God will lead each one of us in the right direction to end the evil.

February 2, 2015 at 5:26 am PST

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