Showing Graphic Abortion Photos: Justifiable & Necessary

Showing Graphic Abortion Photos: Justifiable & Necessary January 2, 2017
Image by “stux” [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


[Note from 1-2-17: Opposition to this has been one of the hallmarks of the self-named “New Pro-Life Movement” but their basic argument in this regard has been around a long time. Double standards abound at every turn. The same people who are dead set against showing photos of aborted children, think nothing of showing pictures of, e.g., a dead refugee child washed ashore, or heartrending images of a bloodied, injured orphaned child (always a child) tragically caught up in the horrors and atrocities of Aleppo, Syria: precisely because they know that they will have a powerful emotional impact]


This is a long-running and ongoing tactical debate in the pro-life community. I just posted a discussion with an agnostic on abortion in the Bible, where I included two very graphic abortion photographs. I usually don’t do that, but I think it is perfectly justifiable to do now and then. “Catholic Mom” (Sharon) in part of a post on her blog, was kind enough to commend my dialogue, while expressing mixed feelings about the photos (her words will be in blue):

I’m not one to post graphic pictures of aborted babies, mostly because I wouldn’t want a youngster to inadvertently run across one. I have some young Facebook friends–mostly sons and daughters of adult friends–who I don’t want to traumatize by exposing them to such graphic images. . . .

Which brings to mind a question: Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life often says “America won’t reject abortion until America sees abortion.” He reminds us that people didn’t get outraged over slavery and the Holocaust until they saw graphic pictures of emaciated people, slaves with scars covering their backs, and truck beds and mass graves full of bodies. Do you agree? Personally I have mixed feelings about using images of aborted children to spread the pro-life message . . .

A commenter expressed a negative opinion as well:

As for the graphic images, call me softie, but I am not in favor of them. Why? Because I think it is not effective, and I have two young children, both of whom were adopted.

Sharon seemed to agree:

I think you’re right about the graphic images, and they have a tendency to make people mad. And I can see where you’re coming from, too, having adopted two children.

I then felt compelled to voice my opinion on the matter:

Sorry about the abortion photos. We pro-lifers don’t need to see them. I understand the debate on that, but in the end I have to come down on the side of showing the photos (occasionally, anyway), because this is the reality of it, and it has been hidden all too long.

If we don’t like seeing them (and I hate it as much as anyone, believe me; I get almost sick), then I think we need to pause and stop to think that some people out there on the fence may actually have their minds changed in an instant. And that could possibly save lives in the future. That is well worth our discomfort at seeing this brutality and what it does.

We have to show people what abortion is for them to grasp the full horror of it. I’ve done the arguments for almost thirty years. They rarely work by themselves. It takes a punch to the gut and a reality check sometimes to get through.

So that’s why I did that, in a debate with an agnostic. I wanted people to see exactly what he and many like him (including many many professed Christians) erroneously think the Bible condones or is silent about. I am sorry if they offended any pro-lifer who saw them.

And if you’re still pro-choice after seeing it, you must have a serious problem. I just can’t see how any rational person could possibly argue for abortion “rights” after seeing that.

Here you’re making my point for me. Some folks will see these horrible pictures and change their mind. Is there any imaginable reason that could be a better justification than that? Yet we pro-lifers debate about showing the pictures that might cause decent, fair-minded (ignorant) people to become pro-lifers themselves?

On the one hand, they [graphic abortion photos] do expose the truth about what abortion really is, but sometimes I wonder if it only serves to enrage pro-choicers and make them more determined to dig in their heels.

Yes, of course it will enrage the hard-line pro-aborts, but this is the nature of things. A thing like this will always infuriate those people whose sin and false views it exposes. The Nazis at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials didn’t enjoy seeing pictures of their crimes, either.

It was the same with the gospel. If we used the same reasoning in the early Church, we would say, “hey, we shouldn’t go around preaching this gospel because it makes some people very angry and they even go out and kill Christians as a result. So we shouldn’t preach it. We should use honey rather than vinegar.”

The truth (including visual depictions) has to be promulgated. It is impossible not to offend some people. But they aren’t the ones who will be reached, anyway. It is the people on the fence, who haven’t decided, and who are ignorant of the frightful reality of abortion.

Another analogy is politics. There are the hardcore conservatives and liberals, and never the twain shall meet. Their messages infuriate the ones in the opposite camp. But elections are about influencing the ones in the middle; the undecideds.

Apologetics also works that way. When I post a dialogue, I have little or no expectation of persuading my dialogical opponent (such as this person I just debated). But I have high expectations of influencing and persuading or moving along a bit any number of people who are still working through the issue and haven’t yet made up their minds. They can choose by reading each side presented by its proponent (rather than by caricatures or distorted views of opposing positions, given by those who disagree).

So the pro-aborts are offended by the pictures. Of course! They don’t want to be seen as defenders of such an outrage. A good proportion of pro-lifers also are (but I think the reasons ultimately fail and miss the mark).

Ones in the middle will either be influenced in the right, constructive way (and start opposing abortion) or will get angry. It took just a few pictures of this sort and basic information to convince me back in 1982 when I was on the fence (but fully willing to go where I thought the truth and the good were). Truth is truth, and injustice, injustice. If I can convince just a few people out there that abortion is wrong, by these photos, then it is worth 10,000 Christians who feel squeamish about showing the ghastly reality of abortion.

The same applies to Operation Rescue. I was part of that movement from 1988 to 1990. I was in about 23 rescues, was arrested five times, and did jail time (nothing serious). Christians wanted to argue about tactics and condemn civil disobedience. We wanted to save lives. There are young men and women alive today, walking around, because of these rescues (they would be 20 or 21 years old now). If we hadn’t done the rescues, most or all of them wouldn’t be here. It could have grown as a movement and changed our society. The opportunity was ours to seize. But soon the pro-aborts got very tough (legally) and crushed it.

I was a Protestant then and at one rally I sat next to Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York. It is a key reason for making me decide to become a Catholic, because the Church had the wisdom to recognize that there are times when man’s law must give way to God’s Divine Law.

Sharon has clarified her position in the combox, and we are really not that far apart. Her main hesitation is her personal discomfort and the issue of children seeing such pictures, but she doesn’t oppose in principle the use of such photographs.

[combox, below]

Thanks for this post, and for linking to my blog! You have given me a lot to think about! :) As I said in my comment to you there, I certainly did not intend to criticize you for using graphic photos. You are 100 per cent justified in doing so. And despite my discomfort about them, it is necessary for us to expose the truth. As it is, being a prolife advocate is outside of my comfort zone (I never want to stir the pot), and I think I’m trying to figure out how far outside of that comfort zone I want to go. Just yesterday I saw a post by Father Pavone that included an email by a teenage girl thanking him for putting abortion photos on his site. She said that before she saw them, she was prochoice, but no more. Those are the people (the young) who prolifers need to reach the most, I think. Older prochoicers might be more set in their ways and more likely to get angry when they see those images. Do you agree? Then again, one reason I’m not comfortable using them is just that: I don’t want to traumatize children, especially if they’re my friends’ kids. It’s a dilemma I guess I haven’t quite figured out yet.
Thanks for your thoughts, and I’m glad I didn’t upset you. I agree: the older baby boomer generation (I’m a younger boomer: 1958) would get more angry because they have lived the reality of legal abortion and have had them themselves or were involved somehow with friends, family, etc. The whole generation (like the Jews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years with Moses) became corrupt.

I am also aware of the possible trauma to children. I think if they are already pro-life and know the score then they shouldn’t look at the pictures or be exposed to them, as much as possible. If not, then maybe the trauma is worth it if it jolts them into reality. Sometimes that is what it takes.

Our society certainly bombards children with sexual images, so if it takes seeing some dead babies, to see the fruit of the sexual revolution and alleged “sexual freedom” then there are times it would be justified, in my opinion.

With the Internet, we can hardly assume that children are reading everything we write or looking at pictures we post, but of course it is always possible.

So there are no easy, set answers on the children aspect. I think that is the best case of the “opposed to photos” position. But that has to do with the increased sensibilities, fragility, and innocence of children. With adults, it is an entirely different matter.

Someone else in my old combox from 2010 wrote:

I agree with you, Dave. I can still remember watching a debate with Rick Santorum and Barbara Boxer on the Senate floor about partial-birth abortion. Santorum just showed a very tame drawing of what occurs and Boxer went absolutely ballistic. She screamed at him and said how dare he show such picture on the Senate floor.

My immediate reaction was – you are so offended by the pictures of a partial-birth abortion but you defend the actual practice of partial-birth abortion!

The pictures make it much harder for the pro-aborts to treat the debate as though we’re all just talking about a gall bladder or appendix. It’s deeply disturbing that people can have a discussion about something so heinous and treat it in such way, but it happens all the time.

I have maintained for 25 years or more that the pro-abortion position is moral insanity: pure and simple. There is no reasoning with these people. So in that scenario shock tactics are almost all that is left. It is almost an act of mercy to jolt them into basic moral reality. But (as stated in my post itself), we’re primarily seeking to reach those “on the fence” who are willing to be convinced by hard evidence and the facts (and a photograph of the reality of the outrage of legal murder of children, to the tune of 3,000+ a day in America).

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