The cause of a late 2013 car crash was never completely identified, but if you ask one woman driving down Lincoln M Alexander Parkway in Hamilton, Canada, she’ll tell you she was rear-ended because the driver behind her was distracted by a massive, graphic, anti-abortion banner hanging from the overpass in front of them.
“As they were approaching that, the traffic slowed, and the gal behind me … slammed right into the back of me,” Christy Loftchick told the Hamilton Spectator in November 2013. “The airbag hit her. She was a mess.”
The debate over legal abortion continues to divide communities across the globe, but almost as divisive is the fight over the best means to advocate against the procedure itself. Just as abortion opponents fall into opposing camps when it comes to allowing abortion when a fetus has a condition incompatible with life or if a woman was impregnated as a victim of sexual assault, there is just as much disagreement over whether graphic images are helpful in advancing the pro-life cause, or when they should or shouldn’t be displayed.
The use of images depicting aborted fetuses or embryos in anti-abortion activism is as old as legalized abortion itself – or even older. In the US, Dr Jack Willke, who has often been referred to as the father of the modern pro-life movement, made them a key component of his 1971 Handbook on Abortion, the first major anti-abortion advocacy text, which was being distributed even as Roe v. Wade was still over a year from making abortion legal in all 50 states.
After Roe, activists like Joe Scheidler in Chicago and his compatriots made the gruesome pictures part of their street advocacy, handing out pamphlets and posting photos on signs although, as Scheidler advised in his sidewalk counseling manual, avoiding using them when approaching patients about to enter abortion clinics out of fear that it could stop them from engaging in conversation with the sidewalk counselors themselves.
By the 90s, the use of graphic abortion images was expanding even further as groups such as Center for Bioethical Reform began spreading the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) at college campuses in the US and Canada, and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust trained youth to participate in anti-abortion awareness-raising projects that also include graphic photos in public spaces. Since then, the addition of Truth Trucks – vans covered with full-blown pictures of fetal body parts or other images – and Jumbotrons playing videos of abortions in progress have made campaigns even more mobile and, as a result, more often criticized.
There’s little doubt that today the general population is far more likely to see a graphic anti-abortion display than ever before. But is the tactic actually effective when it comes to changing a person’s mind on abortion? That question is one that even abortion opponents themselves find hard to answer. “On the one hand, our culture ought to be honest about the reality of abortion, and photos of dead prenatal children can help us do that,” says Charles Camosy, a Christian ethics professor at Fordham University and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: A New Way Forward for a New Generation. “For most people, it is an uncomfortable reality to face and we ought to think more about why we feel this way.”
Harrington’s goal is to get the realities of abortion out and in front of the eyes of those “in the middle” when it comes to the abortion debate.
“But on the other hand, pro-lifers ought to face the reality that broad, uncritical use of graphic images often makes it more difficult for people to hear what we have to say,” he adds. “Though a broad majority of Americans agree that abortion should be more restricted than it is now, they also find it difficult to get behind a pro-life movement they see as extremist and, frankly, weird.”
Mark Harrington disagrees with the idea that graphic photos could harm the movement or drive people away. Harrington has been showing graphic abortion images for nearly two decades now, first with the Center for Bioethical Reform and now with his own organization, Created Equal, in Ohio.
“The victims deserve to be seen,” says Harrington.
While Harrington says the organization does its best to stay away from places where small children could come into contact with the images – especially staying away from daycares and elementary schools – and tries to provide ample warning so that those who wish to avoid the displays can do so, his goal is to get the realities of abortion out and in front of the eyes of those “in the middle” when it comes to the abortion debate. If that happens to upset some people who may have been allies otherwise, well, it’s hard to believe they were committed to ending abortion in the first place.
“Will it turn some people off? Well, sure,” says Harrington. “Who wants to look at bloody photos? That is a trade-off we are willing to deal with because we are hoping that the people who see these photos have a functioning conscience. If they do, these photos should make them feel compassion to the victim of abortion, not turn them off.”
That becomes especially true when the images are used as political campaign tools. Created Equal PAC, the 501c4 arm of Created Equal, intends to use Jumbotrons, Truth Trucks and other anti-abortion displays to remind 2016 voters that when it comes to voting, life is literally on the line.
“In the case of political campaigns, we believe we have a prophetic role,” says Harrington. “We are going to expose the candidate’s position on abortion, and that is our primary purpose. The best way to do that is to show the victim that is the result of the candidate’s support for abortion. The victim. The child itself.”
While that could have a detrimental effect on an election, Harrington says that election day isn’t the end goal. “Our main purpose in using abortion victim photos during elections is non-partisan and I hope they can have an effect on voting against candidates, whether they are Republican or Democrat, who support abortion. I think there are enough people in the country with a functioning conscience that, when given the evidence – in this case, photographic or video evidence – will reason to the more humane conclusion that abortion is an act of violence and that it kills a baby.”
To Harrington, the election cycle provides a platform to bring the abortion issue front and center in the public eye, where it cannot be ignored. If people react poorly to his tactics, or even worse, threaten to vote against anti-abortion candidates or abortion-restricting ballot amendments, they likely weren’t dedicated pro-lifers.
“We’ve had email and that kind of thing where people have said that, but I don’t know if I believe it,” says Harrington. “It’s like saying you saw a lynching of a black man and that’s going to make you more racist. If that’s the case, then a person has a bigger problem. They have a heart problem. If they are going to vote for what they’ve just seen in front of them, if after they’ve seen something it makes them more apt to vote to support it, then they are not our target audience to begin with. They can say they are pro-life if they wish, but they are not the kind of pro-life person that is going to make a difference in this battle.”
Tara Shaver agrees. After five years of anti-abortion activism as the Albuquerque, New Mexico outreach of Operation Rescue and a founder of the local anti-abortion organization Protest ABQ, the young mother, her husband and their allies have made “abortion victim” imagery a key component of the education campaign that focuses especially on later gestation abortions.
“Abortion victim” imagery is a key component of the education campaign focusing on later gestation abortions.
“Abortion is such a sterile term in our society,” says Shaver. “We see that it’s effective to use the images of abortion victims to bring meaning back to the words. Rather than something political or abstract, we want people to think of that dead baby, that dead child, instead. We are against abortion. We are against pre-born child killing. We are against what the picture depicts.”
Graphic images became a major piece of the 2013 vote to ban abortions after 20 weeks in Albuquerque, where one of the few clinics allowing third-trimester abortions in the US is located. As one of their educational tools, the Shavers drove a Truth Truck throughout the city in the weeks prior to the vote, a move that had even some supporters of the ban calling to say the images were too much, according to an MSNBC report by Irin Carmon.
Even if a few people call to complain, Shaver feels overall the tactic has been successful in framing the debate and engaging people in the battle to end later abortions locally.
“The use of graphic abortion victim images has been amazingly effective here in Albuquerque,” she said. “Using the abortion victim photos, as well as graphic language, has moved mountains as far as getting people educated here in New Mexico, in really getting people to know what happens in their city. Being graphic with the images and language is what has helped us be so successful with the debate in Albuquerque.”
As for the Truth Truck itself, in Shaver’s experience, far more people said they were inspired to vote in favor of the ban than moved to vote against it. “We had reports of people who told us that when individuals went in to vote at the polls they said: ‘Oh, I saw the truck driving around and that got me in to vote. We need to stop this.’ We didn’t really hear any negatives, we heard mostly, ‘Oh, the truck? We didn’t even know this was happening here. That’s why I came in to vote’.”
Despite the campaign, the ban failed 55 to 45 on election day.
While many of those who use graphic imagery say that it doesn’t harm the anti-abortion movement, not every pro-life activist agrees with that statement.
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, the President of New Wave Feminists, believes that while the images may not necessarily harm children (many of whom won’t even recognize them for what they are), they are more likely to overwhelm someone older, putting him or her into a place of fear and anger that will make that person impossible to reach.
“What pro-life activists and politicians have to understand is that for every image of aborted baby boy Malachi, there’s an equally gory image of Gerri Santoro, the woman who bled out in a dirty hotel room in 1964 from a botched abortion,” says Herndon-De La Rosa. “So if the other side has graphic images as well, perhaps we should ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t they using them?’ The answer is simple: Because they’re polarizing and often ineffective.”
If the anti-abortion movement wants to change the hearts and minds of the public, activists must be approachable, according to Herndon-De La Rosa. Graphic imagery pushes them away and undermines the trust and believability the activist is attempting to establish.
These images make most people view us as fanatical fringe activists, not someone they ever want to be like or listen to.
“It’s very hard to have a constructive conversation with someone you’ve just horrified, and when you want that person to change their mind the first thing you need to be is credible,” she says. “Right off the bat these images make most people view us as fanatical fringe activists, not someone they ever want to be like or listen to.”
New Wave Feminists takes a different approach, using videos, comics and “Fiona the Feminist Fetus” to take their message that abortion harms women and degrades their gender, and using signs and handouts that use humor and supportive, pro-woman language as their weapon in the battle to end legal abortion. “If we want to reach women dealing with crisis pregnancies, or the American public in general, we have to talk to them on a heart level, not a horror level,” says Herndon-De La Rosa. “I think truth trucks, billboards, and signs draped from overpasses only serve to desensitize the American public.”
To Herndon-De La Rosa and others like her, graphic images are an easy way to get media attention and even fundraise, but don’t provide the real support needed to create policy changes that will address why people choose abortion in the first place.
“We know other methods, like offering women free medical care, fighting for paid maternity leave, and giving them tangible practical resources is much more effective, but instead they choose to add to these women’s already mounting state of fear and anxiety by throwing a 10-foot-tall graphic image in her face, then going home and patting themselves on the back for their ‘pro-life activism’. Stop just checking the boxes, and start truly helping women and their children.”
Graphic images are just one topic of anti-abortion activism where the movement finds itself divided. Incremental laws slowly chipping away at legal abortion versus bans or amendments that make it illegal from the moment of conception, whether abortions should be accessible if a person was impregnated as a result of rape, or whether emergency contraception, IUDs, even hormonal contraception should be outlawed as well, all are just as likely to raise passionate voices on both sides of the issue.
Yet with graphic images, it appears to be the sole division where those who are considered the “extremist” side of the movement appear to have the most power. Whereas “personhood” movements and rape exceptions are likely to draw equally loud and extensive debate from both sides, the argument involving “victim images” instead trends more toward very vocal supporters and an opposition that, although they disagree with the tactic, feel that it is not worth trying to persuade their fellow anti-abortion allies to stop.
Maybe that is because to those allied in the anti-abortion movement, a difference in what goes on the signs and handouts matters far less than a commitment to end legal abortion for good. In that regard, a picture is a small thing to fight too vehemently over.
“People shouldn’t be upset that we are showing what is happening in an abortion clinic,” says Protest ABQ’s Shaver. “People should be upset that this is actually happening in an abortion clinic. We are just the messenger.”
Photo credit: Wendi Kent photography