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Defending Public Abortion Images (Part 1)

Trent Horn

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?

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