Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I used to be pro-choice — vehemently so. I once said that I’d lay down my life to defend a woman’s “right to choose,” and I meant it. Now that I’ve come to my senses and am on the right side of the battle lines, one of the most common questions I’m asked is: “Do you think graphic images are effective for changing hearts and minds about abortion?”
The short answer is: Yes. But only under certain circumstances.
Father Frank Pavone has a saying that “America won’t reject abortion until America sees abortion.” In general, I agree with him. The bodies of the victims of this procedure are hidden behind closed doors, so it’s easy for the average person to slide this issue to the backburner of his consciousness. However, as I know from being on the other side of the debate, when pro-choice folks have graphic images of aborted babies unexpectedly shoved in their faces, it rarely achieves the desired effect.
I think there is a place for showing the American people the truth about abortion, but only if under the following conditions:
1. Let people opt in
When someone forces you to look at something distasteful, your main reaction is visceral rather than intellectual. You’re surprised, revolted and offended, and you instantly divert most of your mental energy to regaining control of the situation — usually by averting your eyes. Unless someone were already well versed on the issue of abortion, I think it’s unlikely that a surprise viewing of a deceased child would lead him to a lot of reasoned thought on the issue.
However, I’ve noticed that when people freely choose to see these types of pictures, their reactions are completely different. They know what they’re getting themselves into, so they’re prepared for that initial shock. And by agreeing to look at the image in the first place, they’ve given their assent — consciously or unconsciously — that this is an issue worth exploring further.
2. Establish that we’re looking at humans
When I would come across graphic images of abortion when I was pro-choice, they didn’t produce an ounce of human empathy within me. I thought they were gross, the same way I might think a picture of an appendectomy was gross, but I could have stared at them all day without being moved. Did I have a heart of stone? Not exactly. I had just completely bought into the lie that unborn life isn’t human.
People can stomach any atrocity by simply telling themselves that the victims aren’t human. In Rwanda in the 1990s, stacks of Tutsi bodies literally lining the streets didn’t sway public opinion against the genocide. The Tutsi people had been thoroughly dehumanized in the public mind (labeled inyenzi, the Kinyarwandan word for cockroach) and thus their deaths did little to move their neighbors.
As long as people believe that children within the womb are sub-human “fetuses,” or “clumps of tissue,” no amount of pictures of their deaths will sway people. To be effective, images of abortion must go hand-in-hand with efforts to humanize life in the womb. Education about the development of unborn life in the womb, beautiful pictures of living babies at various stages of gestation, etc. can all help change the all-too-common opinion that these children are “just fetuses.”
3. Present it in the context of a relationship
When an enemy confronts you with information, your gut reaction is to reject it, no matter how reasonable it might be. This is a key reason why I think graphic images at pro-life marches and prayer vigils are ineffective: the people on the other side of the lines see us as enemies. Even a person undecided about the issue would likely be offended at having a shocking pictures foisted upon him without his consent, and he’d likely reject the messenger, and therefore the message.
As with any kind of evangelization, challenging information is best presented within the context of a relationship. Establishing a respectful dialogue with individuals and only then challenging them to view pictures of what really happens behind the walls of abortion clinics is a much more effective approach.
4. Follow up with support and a call to action
When people take a look at the reality of abortion under the three conditions above, I believe it’s likely that they’ll see these images as they were meant to be seen, and they’ll wake up to the stark truth about what’s actually at stake in this debate. But then what? I know that when I first allowed myself to really internalize those pictures, I was so stunned and upset that I put the issue out of my mind. I felt helpless and hopeless, without any ideas for what to do about what I’d just seen. I simply tried to forget about it.
It was only when pro-lifers reached out to me and invited me to be part of the solution, helping me process this difficult data I’d just internalized, that seeing those images finally helped change my heart and my mind.
What do you think? Are you against or in favor of using graphic images in the abortion debate?