Graphic Images and the Pro-Life Message…

… Today marks the 41st anniversary of Roe V. Wade and hundreds of thousands of folks took to DC to participate in the March for Life. Therefore, I think it’s timely to take a moment and reflect on Abby Johnson’s words regarding the use of graphic images by pro-life organizations and individuals.

Some background; it all started here.

In response to Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa’s questions on facebook Abby Johnson wrote back. Simcha Fisher reposted, with permission, her reply. Simcha writes…

She (Abby Johnson) says that, while these graphic images occasionally do change people’s minds, they also often do something else: they tip the balance toward abortion.

She should know. She once managed an abortion clinic, and for many years saw protesters march around with their gory posters.

Abby Johnson’s full response is as follows…

I watched them be ineffective for many years … from inside the abortion clinic. A perspective that most do not have. I watched for several years as women would literally run away from those holding graphic signs. They would come into my office and ask us why those people were holding them. We used that as an opportunity to point out how crazy the prolifers were and that they would do anything to prevent women from making the choices they felt they needed to. It was an AMAZING way for us to build camaraderie inside our clinic.

Then I saw the signs come down…and I actually saw women changing their minds. They started approaching the people on the sidewalk, asking questions…and then leaving our parking lot and going to the crisis pregnancy centers. Once the signs came down, we started to have volunteer escorts so that we could try to convince the women coming in not to talk to the sidewalk counselors…because they were having such an impact. When the signs were out there, we LOVED IT!!! No one was approaching them. We didn’t need escorts.


I remember the first time I encountered signs like that. I was driving into work and the Face the Truth (Warning: graphic and triggering images) folks were waving huge signs from an overpass to those traveling on the interstate below. Aside from almost crashing my car, I had to pull over and violently sob and shake for a good fifteen minutes. When I recovered, the urge to confront them for their insensitivity was overwhelming but I was already late for work. Instead I silently thanked God that my son was not in the car with me. I can’t image how traumatic that might have been seeing those images and then witnessing his mother have a complete breakdown.

The next time I encountered them was at the 2010 March For Life. To be fair, I’m not sure if it was the same organization or not. But at the March For Life… isn’t that like preaching to the choir? They had this huge set up right smack in the middle in the street so that the marchers had to go around them. Their display wasn’t even pointed in the direction of curious onlookers watching the march. Nope, it was pointed right smack dab at all the marchers. Marchers made up of kids, families, and a whole lot of post-abortive women.

And I can tell you from my own observations, no one was approaching them.

I can only image how absolutely ineffective images of aborted babies may be at an abortion clinic if they alienated entire crowds of pro-life marchers at the March For Life, of all places. Having such brutal images stand between yourself and the woman you hope to counsel has got to be the worst possible way to make yourself approachable.

Then there’s the whole idea that the unborn are undeserving of dignity. I’ve written about this before, how I believe overuse of graphic images exploits the dead

If you want to visually make the statement that abortion is the murder of a very real person you’d be more convincing [and compassionate] to show fetal development images and pass out information on the statistics of depression/suicide/drug use of post-abortive mothers. Women need that information more than they need gore and extreme shock tactics.

A much more dramatic and life affirming image

Expanding on this, Jennifer Fulwiler writes; “Thrusting pictures of aborted babies in people’s faces seems unlikely to convert people and… feed[s] the cultural message that these unborn children are less deserving of respect and dignity than other human beings.”

No one is doubting the well meaning intentions of those who use these graphic images to let the public know that abortion is evil. They are passionate about something we should be passionately against. However, the use and exploitation of the dead to promote an agenda – whether it’s one you are for or against – is plainly wrong and strips the victims of the dignity they deserve. It is also the antithesis of promoting a respect for life.

That’s not to say that I am completely against their use. Everything within a reasonable context. Maybe in one of those human sexuality classes high school and college kids take. I definitely think they would serve a beneficial purpose in an environment where sex education consists of nothing more than “use a condom, boys” and “her body, her choice.” I also think it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach their older children about abortion, what it looks like and what it really is.

But other than that… I can’t really advocate their use. Not in public with no discretion or consideration for the viewer. And no, that doesn’t make me any less passionate or not quite pro-life enough.

What women, and men, need is the knowledge that there is help, support, and resources available to them. They need kindness and compassion. These things can’t be thoughtfully conveyed when you intentionally set a barrier between yourself and someone needing help.

About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • Quittin’ time at Tara!

    I do appreciate this very reasonable article, as I subscribe to its realpolitik. Results above all. That being said, I have the exact opposite experience, in my own life, with these images. I became incontrovertibly pro-life after seeing them and had a serious and lasting conviction through them. They moved me deeply and permanently. I can only liken the experience to seeing photographs of Auschwitz when I was a child. Exposure to the blunt force of man’s inhumanity to other men was the perfect remedy to complacency and the utopianism of youth. It burns in your bones, to know this whole painful truth. They were a gift to me, perhaps the only gift those poor babies could bestow: the truth that hurts, the the horror that lights a flame of justice strong enough to burn my whole life through. This is my witness to the matter.

    • Mellie

      I have to say that I unequivocally agree with Quittin’ time above. I couldn’t have said it better and I would describe my personal experience as identical. The photographs of the tiny victims of abortion were a gift to me as well. The babies did indeed have a voice beyond the grave. I would not be the person I am today if I had not seen them and wept over them until I could hardly breathe. I never want to stop feeling that way about those children because it means I understand the gravity of what abortion is.

      Mercy and compassion wear different faces. The most merciful and compassionate thing that could have been done for me was to reveal the fullness of the truth of the horror of abortion. Before that, I rejected mercy because I did not believe I needed it.

      • Heather

        I have to wonder… what were the circumstances of seeing these violent images? Kat has said “Everything within a reasonable context.” The proper context for those kinds of images exists. She (and others) are just saying that some of the contexts in which they are used are unnecessarily traumatizing and have been demonstrated to have exactly the opposite effect of what they are intending, by further frightening women who are already feeling frightened and vulnerable.

        • Katrina Fernandez

          Thanks Heather. I meant to reply back and ask Quittin’ about that. Mellie too. Did you look at the images on a computer having sought them out yourself? Or did you see them walking about the street minding your own every day business and there they were?

          I understand if revealing the circumstances in which you finally saw them might be too personal to share here.

          I’m not saying the images aren’t powerful tools and emotionally moving. It took awhile before I could look at them and but now I’m be less bothered; however, when I do see them it’s on my own accord – through internet searches and writing about pro-life issues. I have control over the *context* in which I view them and it’s not just sprung up on me on my way to work or the store.

          The images are polarizing and I am telling you the God’s honest truth, in both instances where I saw them waved about in public, not a living soul was approaching the sign holders to get information. They were driving people away from them. Doesn’t that sound purpose defeating?

          So Quittin’ & Mellie, if you wish, I’d love to hear how and under what context you saw the images.

          Thank you both for your thoughtful replies.

          • Quittin’ time at Tara!

            I was taken by my sainted mother to an abortion clinic for a prayer service when I was probably about 8. I thought it was your typical prayer-service-for-a-cause, a “mother thing” that I waited through patiently and people-watched. Then, I saw the images. Horror, anger, fear, and soul-rending pity were visited upon that little girl who loved babies. I loved smelling babies, rocking babies, walking babies about, and my family had supplied plenty to adore. I did not approach. I did not speak. I did not draw near, but that isn’t the effect of both the horiffic and the holy. You are stunned into appropriate and commensurate silence.

            Without the images it is plenty easy for human beings to minimize the reality of abortion. But we thirst for the true and the real just as we thirst for beauty. It is what we long for, past the temporary state of horror and fear. I was proud of my mother then; she rose to majestic dimensions right before my eyes. She fought not only for the loveliness of babies( how easy is that?) but battled the SOB that tore that beautiful body limb from limb. She didn’t just cheerlead for “life” (oh, sanitary, denuded polite term!) but fought real demons that crushed skulls and perforated wombs. I was tuned to the epic nature of the battle. I now knew the true nature of my foe, free of jargon, free of platitudes, free of publicity campaigns, free of sterile slogans that only shallowly impress themselves upon the heart.

            But, that is me. I am more concerned about what really works to prevent abortion. I must say I deeply suspect anectdotal evidence, and I tend not to give a flip if the images are immediately traumatizing. Of course they are. Your horror is an appropriate response to the horrifying. It hurts, but life hurts sometimes. But the story does not end with a person walking away from the images in disgust. It is only the BEGINNING of the story. It is the beginning of you choosing life and truth, or death and concealment. You must choose. You must see what you are choosing.

          • Heather

            In other words, seeing graphic imagery is not what made you pro-life. The images made an impression on you because you were eight years old. Being raised by a militantly pro-life mother made you pro-life.

            You say you deeply suspect anecdotal evidence, but where is the evidence, anecdotal or not, that says that such imagery actually deters people who would otherwise be choosing abortion? What makes you so sure it really works, in defiance of the testimony of clinic workers who say it gave them something to bond with the clients over? When protest signs are graphically frightening, it makes the clinic look positively warm and inviting by comparison.

          • Quittin’ time at Tara!

            Since this is my testimony, allow me to characterize my own experience. Seeing the images made me pro-life. My mother showed me the truth, not because she is “militant,” but because she loves the truth. She gave that gift to me.

            It really works, because it worked for me. I am the person that did not choose abortion. I am the person who remembered those images when tempted to foolishness, selfishness, and sensuality. Images convict and convince in a way rhetoric never can. This is why any reputable textbook shows the bodies of the poor German Jews, stacked like dessicated cordwood, heaped in their mass graves by their fellow countrymen. Because images are educative. We expose the horror, we teach through images, in order that it might never, never happen again.

            Images are everything. If we lose the images, we submit to some other story than the absolute truth. It could be argued that the woman who approaches the clinic would have her baby murdered, no matter what she saw in her path. But what of the countless others for whom the images of murdered children, seen on the street, at a march, on the internet, or in a book, made them also say never, never again, never for me and mine, never for my children, or any who come after me, in the quiet of their hearts? I know I am one of them.

  • Michelle

    I appreciated this article. It seemed written with love and reason. God bless you in your writing.

  • Lydia

    Just my two cents, but first of all I agree absolutely with what you’ve written here, Kat. I really do think that, perhaps (and not knowing the circumstances around people who have been persuaded to “switch sides” from pro-abortion to pro-life from seeing the images, I can’t say for certain) people who have been personally impacted by abortion or even miscarriage are far less likely to be persuaded by the graphic stuff. At least, I know for certain that is true for me after two miscarriages, one of which resulted in a holdable, buriable eight week old baby. The trauma from seeing that and living it personally is what makes it nearly impossible for me to look at those images, and I’ve always been pro-life.

    • Heather

      Oh Lydia, I am so sorry for your loss.

  • echarles1

    You blogged earlier about how a dog makes you crazy. By ‘crazy’ I take it in part the baby-talk we adddress to them. Domestic dogs retain their puppiness into adulthood. They are like babies to us and we are drawn to them. How much more are we drawn to actual babies. I imagine a thousand pix of happy babies would create more love for the babies unborn.

  • Augustine

    At the clinic where I pray there’s a guy holding such huge signs. He’s been doing it for many years and he talks to many people coming in. So, I cannot say never to such signs. But, as for me, I’d never hold a graphic sign.

    I used to hold signs such as “you will regret” and such, until I overheard a clinic worker talking to another counselor and she mentioned that while we displayed negative signs outside, they would put on a positive spin on the clients inside. In a way, analogous to what Abby said. Ever since then, if I hold any sign, it’s one of those “smile, your mom chose life” signs.

    I wonder why Priests for Life changed their stance WRT graphic images, which are not prominent in their website anymore.

  • Philippa Martyr

    I agree also, Katrina. Using photos of happy mothers with happy, live babies might help a bit more, and can’t be used as easily by the clinic staff to subvert the message.

  • aleal00

    Thank you for this post. And I would like to add that as a parent, it prevents me from attending some pro life events – or from engaging in them when I arrive. In our local prayer vigil for 40 days for Life, a protester unassociated with the 40 days campaign had very graphic signs, and guess what…. I could not join the group because I was there with my 3 young kids. I had to park way down the street by myself. “Mommy, why does that baby have blood on it?” is not a question I want to hear or answer. I could have been a positive witness to the beauty of life (because come on, my kids are adorbs! I had them all sweetly dressed in pretty dresses with pigtails and holding cute teddy bears) but instead I spent the hour praying on my own. How many other families are prevented from creating a positive impact for the pro life cause if they have to stay away to avoid traumatizing their kids? To anyone who carries these signs…please reconsider so that families can participate too.

  • Lesley

    I firmly and truly believe that it is wrong to use these graphic images.I had a leaflet thrust into my hand one Sunday going into Mass which showed a black bin liner full of aborted babies, what the person handing them did not and could not know was that three days earlier I had suffered my second miscarriage in a year and she was shocked by my very dramatic breakdown and nearly 30 years it still brings tears to my eyes when I remember that morning

    • aleal00

      That’s awful :(

  • faustinaagatha

    I think the images have a place. Images on the internet helped to convince me that it the procedure involved much more than a “blob of tissue”. However image can be overused. People needed to be shown the enormity of the Holocaust, but we don’t need images of death camps constantly thrust in our faces. To do in front of abortion mills I think would just lead to a “fight or flight” reaction. Prayers seem more effective.

  • DestinyNWF

    Hey girl, just now seeing this. Thanks for writing about it and linking to NWF!