Lauren Handy, Aborted Babies and the Ethics of Pro-Life Activism
ROUNDTABLE: What does ethical pro-life action look like? The Register asked four pro-life leaders for their perspectives.
When Catholic pro-life activist Lauren Handy took the bodies of 115 aborted children to her home last month after recovering them from a “medical waste” truck outside a Washington, D.C., abortion facility, her stated intentions were to provide proper burials and seek justice.
But the actions of Handy and her organization, the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), have also sparked a wide-ranging and at times heated conversation within the pro-life community over what ethical pro-life activism should look like.
Some have hailed the actions taken by Handy and PAAU as a model of the bold and even extralegal measures the pro-life community must be willing take, while others have criticized their actions as counterproductive and contrary to a true pro-life ethic. Still others find themselves somewhere in between.
The Register spoke to four leaders in the pro-life community for their perspectives. Lila Rose is the founder and president of Live Action, a global human-rights movement dedicated to ending abortion and building a culture of life, that shared images of some of the aborted children recovered by Handy; Marissa Nichols is the founder and a current volunteer at Guadalupe Hope Society, a pregnancy-resource center in San Jose, California, and has previously prayed and served as a sidewalk counselor outside of a local abortion facility; Mary Wagner is a Canadian pro-life activist who has served a total of six years in prison for entering abortion businesses without permission to urge women to choose life; and Aimee Murphy is the founder and director of publications for Rehumanize International, a human-rights organization dedicated to ending all aggressive violence against human persons through education, discourse and action.
The PAAU story has sparked a conversation about pro-life activism, with contrasting perspectives within the wider movement. What do you think an ethic of pro-life activism looks like? And how would you apply it to this or similar situations?
LILA ROSE: Abortion is the leading cause of death today, the greatest human-rights abuse and is an attack on the most vulnerable. I believe that working to make abortion both unthinkable and illegal must be the focus of our movement. The most vulnerable today are children, and to help them we must also help their mothers and families. From the day that I learned about the horror of abortion, I was determined to stop the killing in any way that I could, and I chose to begin with education and investigative reporting. By going undercover, I could expose the lies the abortion industry tells women and share the ugly truth of what happens inside an abortion facility. At the time, some opposed this tactic, but it gained national attention and started to change the mainstream narrative. Additionally, I believe there is an art to helping change someone’s mind on this issue and that it must include a willingness to boldly show the evils taking place, even when it’s uncomfortable or controversial. Allowing victims to remain unseen only continues their victimization. Changing minds also takes beautifully created content showing the humanity of the child, winsome and thoughtful language, and the determination to walk with these families in their journey to choose life.
I believe that the best pro-life activist tactics are informed by the most successful social-reform movements of the past, including nonviolent civil disobedience, educational efforts that favor revealing the humanity of the victim, investigative reporting that exposes injustice, and support services for the vulnerable.
MARISSA NICHOLS: Abortion has been likened to the Holocaust, and rightly so. But in order for this particular genocide to end, we need to proceed with pro-life activism that respects all lives. Yes, we want justice for the unborn, and to humanize them, but do we not also want to “rescue” mothers, abortion-clinic workers and society at large? One ethic of pro-life activism that I hope we can all get behind is to make abortion unconscionable, through methods that succeed at attracting others by demonstrating the reality of the dignity of all human life, including their own.
Now, for some, aggressive tactics like human chains and graphic-image campaigns, or, in this case, storing human remains as “evidence,” controversial and shocking as they are, are completely acceptable means of making our point. But other pro-life activists, myself included, take issue with them. What’s interesting is that Lauren Handy actually does give practical aid to women and children. But the media has basically ignored this and focused on the discovery of bodies in her fridge (which is still surrounded by so many unanswered questions). And therein lies the danger in engaging in this type of shock-activism: While we may consider ourselves justified because of our belief in the rightness of our cause, if our actions don’t match our rhetoric, or are even slightly questionable, then people will question our cause. When it comes to changing hearts and minds about abortion, respecting others, providing aid, advocacy, etc., is more convincing in the long term than shock.
MARY WAGNER: It is not necessary to have faith to engage in pro-life/anti-abortion activity, however, as Christians, to engage in pro-life work is to seek to live out the gospel of life. “Activism,” in this context, then, is not ultimately about engaging in actions to strategically end abortion (or other normalized forms of killing human beings), which could be the end of a secular pro-life ethic. Christian pro-life activism is rooted in Christian principles, including the truth that each human being (in this case, the child in the womb) is created in the image and likeness of God, our God who became man, lived and died for us and who tells us, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me” (Matthew 25:40). Christian principles lead us to consider how we treat each human being, for example, even after death: Images depicting the victims of abortion can be taken and shown in such a way as to honor the unique children and to educate about the reality of abortion. If we are able to retrieve the bodies of aborted babies, it is so that we might offer them a decent burial. The corporal work of mercy “burying the dead” applies to our brothers and sisters who are killed, dumped in the garbage and forgotten every day. It still applies when the cultural climate would have us convinced that to retrieve their broken and discarded bodies, to take pictures of them lest they be forgotten, and to seek out those who could help to appeal for justice for them is a crime.
AIMEE MURPHY: Truth be told, I’m still trying to figure out my exact philosophy on activism. At this time, I think that any human-centered activism should — above all else — treat humans as ends in themselves. Therefore, in protesting for the rights and dignity of those who’ve been marginalized by violent systems (like the unborn), we must not trample the rights and dignity of the perpetrators or participants: We must be nonviolent. Likewise, we must respect the victims of violence: I think all humans deserve a dignified burial, and I think the use of graphic victim imagery must be judicious, with the child’s dignity as human at the center — in my opinion, that almost always necessitates a one-to-one approach and consent of the viewer. Lastly, I think it’s fair to question whether being fully law-abiding in our pro-life activism is necessary, when (to paraphrase Augustine) “an unjust law is no law at all.” I recognize that each of us are called to do different forms of activism based on our state in life, but I also challenge my fellow pro-lifers to consider that authentic care for human dignity means that inaction is complicity with violence: It is not an option.
In this particular case, though I worry that the handling of these babies’ bodies might have been less than respectful, I also have sympathy for just how unprecedented this whole string of events truly was: There is no guidebook on how to handle the remains of fellow humans who no one treats as human. This whole story could have gone differently if the unborn are not so totally dehumanized in our culture and in our laws. If the PAAU activists had called saying, “Fetuses have been killed by this abortionist, their bodies are in this box,” the police likely would’ve laughed and hung up. What would we have done in such a situation?
My conscience is being challenged these days by Lauren’s nonviolent direct action: I’ve admired and even supported the Catholic pacifist anti-nuclear Plowshares movement and the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement, too, inasmuch as these movements seek to uphold human dignity and end state-sanctioned violence. However, I had been long opposed to the pro-life rescue movement and similar nonviolent direct actions against the abortion industry. Now, truth be told, I’m questioning why I have supported Plowshares and BLM but opposed activism like the “Pink Rose Rescues” that PAAU has been performing. Is it just because doing pro-life activism is unpopular and “cringe”? Or is there something else, a principled reason I oppose them? If there is a principled reason, I’m not sure if I’ve found it yet. If there isn’t a principled reason, does my double standard for this type of activism stem from pure cowardice? This is something I still wrestle with regularly.
A different consideration is whether these kinds of methods are effective in moving the pro-life cause forward. What do you think?
ROSE: There are many talented, well-intentioned people within the greater pro-life community – people of all different ideological persuasions and backgrounds. Some focus on managing crisis-pregnancy centers and supporting mothers, while others work to write new, pro-life legislation and travel nationwide to inspire new advocates to join the movement, or continue a peaceful protest outside abortion facilities. I believe we are all needed to end this evil. Any peaceful, well-intentioned action on behalf of the vulnerable is better than silence, apathy or inaction. No activist or advocate is perfect, but our movement doesn’t need perfect people: It needs people of love, and courage, who are willing to risk themselves for others.
NICHOLS: This is the moment to have a serious conversation over whether these tactics are succeeding or not, especially in regard to circulating photos of the five largest aborted babies, which may be traumatizing for pro-lifers and others who may be post-abortive or have experienced miscarriages or early child death. If these images aren’t landing the way they used to and are now causing trauma, then that’s the opposite of what we are trying to achieve, and we need to adjust accordingly. I’m glad the reality of abortion is documented. We need to respect the choice of others to view it at their discretion.
WAGNER: Everyone who is pro-life wants to see an end to the killing. The pro-life cause is about more than ending this horror; it is about each of us becoming holy and letting God’s kingdom come. Abortion, so-called euthanasia, etc., are the fruit of turning away from God. Abortion will be overcome to the degree that we all repent and earnestly seek to live holy lives. Who knows what God will use to draw his children back to himself? God’s ways are often so mysterious! We must be eager to encourage each other in whatever diverse ways that we are called to build up the culture of life and cautious not to criticize others or actions which we may not feel called to undertake. One danger is to consider abortion too much in the abstract, which can lead to failing to recognize the unique child (and mother) who may need our help right now. Also, we must acknowledge that after decades of decriminalized abortion, we have become accustomed to it. To our shame, we are not responding to the muffled cries of unborn children who are being killed — or of those left to die after failed abortions — as we would to children whose cries we can hear and for whom we could call 911.
MURPHY: To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m the best judge of what is “effective” in any given movement. I think that the most effective movements have been radically inclusive and intentionally disruptive — and PAAU has been trying to thread that needle. Beyond that, I think that making human dignity the central focus of our work is worth doing, even if it makes us unpopular because it makes the wider culture uncomfortable. When the world is comfortable with the existence and prevalence of systems of violence, sometimes the only way to make change is to make waves and interrupt the status quo.
I think a central question to this discourse is whether the status quo can be amply disrupted through only law-abiding means, or without using graphic-victim imagery, or while ignoring the bodies of unborn children and their human right to a dignified burial. Ultimately, it will be months or years before we know the fallout of these actions and whether they will have swayed people to become pro-life or more or less active in this cause. I know I have the responsibility to lean into the hard discussions on this topic with humility, charity and grace, though.
Are there any insights you’re taking away from this story, not just about PAAU’s actions, but about the different responses in the wider pro-life community?
ROSE: This story has shown Americans the horrific reality of abortion in our country, along with the possibility that abortionists can disregard federal laws in order to end the life of a child. In particular, the story of the five infants would never have been told had brave activists from PAAU not obtained their bodies, which were on the way to being incinerated. I think this story has reminded those in the pro-life movement what we are up against: a nation that doesn’t want to see the faces of these children up close, a mainstream media that won’t acknowledge the ugliness of abortion, and politicians who are willing to dismiss and cover-up heinous crimes. The events of the last two weeks have only fueled the fire for the pro-life movement — and we’re just beginning.
NICHOLS: For me, one takeaway that may positively contribute to the effectiveness conversation is the need to delineate between “grassroots” and “fringe.” PAAU’s stated mission is to “mobilize grassroots anti-abortion activists for direct action.” Grassroots, as I understand and practice it, usually means working one-on-one with women, praying or counseling on the sidewalk, volunteering at a pregnancy center and soliciting support from the community. Handy was arrested last week for a 2020 blockade, along with eight other activists who had to drive across state lines to participate. That’s not “grassroots”; that’s “fringe” behavior. See the difference? One works by establishing a strong pro-life base within a specific area to respond to each community’s unique pro-life needs (for example, housing is one big issue in the Silicon Valley that we encounter at our center). The other requires leaving one’s community to descend upon a single location, with the goal of physically preventing the abortion procedure from taking place that day. And never have I, in my almost 15 years of active grassroots pro-life work, heard of any organization or individual taking a box from a clinic’s biowaste van. As others have pointed out, it’s disputable whether Handy’s actions can fittingly be described as “direct” since she appealed to [the driver] to unwittingly provide her the “evidence.” Whether that was fair of her is also debatable. Even the current calls for autopsies for the five largest babies still don’t quite redeem this situation from the murky waters no movement ever wants to find themselves in.
My ultimate takeaway is that we need to behave in a way that decidedly marks us as a reasonable movement, ultimately correct in all of our assertions about the dignity of all human life. I believe we are right. I believe these particular methods are counterproductive.
WAGNER: I was struck by the comment made by Randall Terry during the press conference PAUU gave April 4th. He alluded to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, noting that Jesus chose to highlight the righteous action of the Samaritan (who was considered a heretic by Jesus’ audience), towards his “neighbor” with whom he was supposed to have nothing to do. While the religious leaders passed by the man in need, the Samaritan stopped to do what he could. Randall compared [PAAU’s executive director, Terrisa] Bukovinac (who describes herself as an atheist) and Ms. Handy to the Good Samaritan, remarking that they had done what should have been obvious for the others to do who passed by instead.
Some in the pro-life community have failed to appreciate the good intentions and love behind the young women’s efforts to retrieve the babies’ bodies and to give them the due reverence and justice they deserve. To me, this is a wake-up call to examine our consciences, strengthen our desire and redouble our efforts to seek the truth and to love as we are loved.
MURPHY: One thing I must mention is that I’m particularly troubled by the use of the childrens’ bodies in the graphic imagery shared by Live Action and others on social media, which seems to treat their corpses as tools, as objects, as mere means to an end, without concern for parents who’ve lost children to stillbirth, miscarriage or abortion.
More broadly, the responses on social media has been a veritable flurry of simultaneous adulation and harsh critique: Some pro-lifers have practically canonized Lauren, calling her a “hero” and a “living saint,” while others have thrown epithets and basically called her a mentally ill monster and “fetus fetishist.” I think that a lot of these assessments again suffer from keeping her at a dehumanizing distance. It’s perfectly okay and even good to have questions about and perhaps to take issue with how this whole situation was handled: There’s plenty of room for healthy and rigorous dialogue about methods and strategy and tactical alliances and all of that without dehumanizing the well-intentioned people in question, whether that’s by holding them on a pedestal or by condemning them as ghoul.