The same year I became Catholic, 1996, I took a trip to visit a friend in Philadelphia. We spent a week visiting the sites in Washington, D.C. One of the places I most wanted to visit was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had opened a few years previously to national acclaim.
It was a harrowing experience. We were given “passports” at the door with the life story of a victim told in succeeding pages, which we were to read as we walked through the exhibits. There were ghastly photographs and film footage of emaciated survivors walking through camps that were quite literally strewn with piles of corpses. Perhaps more haunting were the piles of shoes that had been preserved from owners who had been marched off to gas chambers. As we walked through the remnants of a nightmare for millions, we read the personal story of just one victim in our “passport.” When we got to the final page, most visitors learned that “their” person had died. A few visitors got the happy news that “their” person had survived the camps.
After that, it was a relief to walk into a light-filled room walled with mirrors to reflect the vigil candles that could be lit in honor of the dead.
The significance of one aspect of the visit did not strike me until years later. It was when I kept hearing pro-life activists defend the grisly images of aborted babies—all too often waved from signage on picket lines, pulled on banners from airplanes, and plastered to the sides of trucks—on the basis that such pictures of the victims were as necessary as the footage preserved of Holocaust victims. It is the pictures of the Holocaust that most definitively refute the Holocaust deniers; why shouldn’t we also make public the images of the tens of millions of unborn babies who have been slaughtered in the legal holocaust of our time?
I thought back to that visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. When my friend and I walked through the exhibits, we noticed that the televisions that displayed the most upsetting footage of the victims were not out in the open. They were set inside “pits” with surrounding walls high enough to require that a standing adult deliberately choose to look down inside at the screens. Children could not view the footage unless a consenting adult helped them, and the museum had a suggested minimum age for minors visiting the exhibits.
There were still plenty of relics of the era, such as the shoes that were never reclaimed; there were still plenty of nongraphic photos to be viewed. The museum had other TVs that showed interviews with survivors that had been conducted many years later, after the survivors had recovered sufficiently to share their experiences, that ran on a continuous loop. Those visitors who chose to view evidence of some of the worst atrocities man has committed against his fellow man could do so, but every visitor could make the choice for himself how much horror he could stand.
When graphic images of abortion are waved about indiscriminately by activists hoping to “shock and awe” their unwilling viewers, no such opportunity for informed consent occurs. Perhaps Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life is correct that “America will not reject abortion until America sees abortion,” but I would argue that Americans cannot be forced to see something they are not ready for, prepared for, and have chosen for themselves to see. Their eyes will glaze over or they will look away; they will accuse the pro-life movement of manufacturing images; they will do whatever they have to do to protect themselves from a reality they cannot bear.
And if that is the case, if indeed “there are none so blind as those who will not see” (cf. Matt. 9:27-30), then how can we possibly justify “virtually” spilling the blood of the innocent at the feet of the apathetic when there is little reason to hope that such displays will change hearts and minds?
Yes, graphic images of abortion are important, as are photos of any crime victim. But they must be shared in a discreet fashion that respects the dignity of the viewer and honors the dignity of the victim. In my opinion, anything less is unworthy of anyone who considers himself to be “pro-life.”