Reflections on Showing Graphic Abortion Photographs

Reflections on Showing Graphic Abortion Photographs January 25, 2020

These are my comments (2-3 January 2017) from a long Facebook discussion thread, that was about my article, Showing Graphic Abortion Photos: Justifiable and Necessary (+ Facebook discussion) [12-17-10]


Is it permissible and/or helpful to show graphic abortion photos: babies that have been gruesomely torn limb-from-limb or burned; murdered? I say yes.

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.


I rarely use them, myself. But I don’t see how anyone can absolutely oppose it in principle. I have a collection of such photos in one of my Facebook photo albums.


I granted in the piece that this [not showing them to young children] was a valid argument, and I would usually apply it myself. But I can see times like, e.g., if one of my children started talking the typical pro-choice rhetoric about “clumps of cells” etc., that I might have chosen to show them the reality of what abortion is.

Fortunately, it was never necessary, because all four of my children are good Catholics and pro-lifers, and always have been. My three boys have marched in Washington several years. I only did it twice.

But, like you, I’d probably start with the live preborn baby photos.


Yes of course these pictures are “violent” (they’re disgusting and revolting), but this is the very point: when people want to pretend that abortion is not what it is: is not violent, let alone murder, sometimes a picture speaks a thousand words, just as the horrific movies of the bodies in Nazi concentration camps shocked everyone and woke up more than a few, to the rampant anti-Semitism of Europe, and the diabolical nature of the Nazis: even more than was already known.


When I used to do street demonstrating about abortion 30 years ago, I made two posters with lots of photographs: one with all intact preborn babies and the other with aborted ones. If someone objected to the latter, I brought out the former and asked them: “do you also have an objection to showing the development of the fetus in the womb?”

I always liked to use my “life” poster a lot more than the other ones with the carnage, because there is far less objection to it; hence, more prospect for success. But both kinds of photos it helped convince me in 1982 on the spot, that abortion was murder, and indefensible. I was a good liberal in every way — a radical one — in the 70s.

In any event, it’s good for folks who would be inclined to oppose those photos, to hear the rationale in favor of them, which is likely not what they would have thought it might be.


I have argued that it is best used with individuals, with discretion. But it continues to be not morally distinguishable from pictures of the Holocaust, or war refugees, or ISIS victims. As long as those images exist, and no one has any objection to them, I don’t see how abortion photos are a whit different.

The “difference” comes because with abortion, we all know people who have had an abortion, and so it is a very squeamish topic. It’s all around us. It’s our Nazi Holocaust: going on on the next block. We can choose to try to cover it up and make excuses for it, rationalize it, or we can expose it, and that includes (in the right time and place) pictures.

I think the bottom line is that it does indeed cause some people to turn against abortion, or to not have one themselves. If it offends 99 people and the 100th person changes their mind, and/or doesn’t have an abortion, then a life is saved, and that is well worth offending the other 99. Let them be offended. A human being has now been allowed to live, or a mind changed, that can in turn positively influence others.

Apologetics (my field) is very similar. Folks are offended by us all the time because we take stands and say that x is true and right, and y is false and bad. I am regularly insulted: have been for 20 years online. But I (solely by the power of God’s grace) convince some people to become Catholics. That’s what it’s all about. I am an advocate of the Catholic Church and want to see people come into it.


See much more material on the topic of pro-life on my Life Issues web page.


Further Reflections from 6-7-20:

I have written about this sort of thing many times (i.e., the so-called “old” vs, so-called “new” pro-life debate). I think sometimes we have to offend people; that we can’t always be touchy-feely and tell people what they want to hear.

It’s also different sitting in your living room by a fire, talking to a trusted friend, with whom you are building trust, and speaking to a broad audience in a public forum: vastly different. There is a time for everything. But there is a reason why Jesus said “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” What is it about us that they hate, and what was it about Jesus that made Him so despised and hated (and murdered)? We know it wasn’t sin in His case. Is it always because we Christians are rotten hypocrites and unfeeling jerks that we are so hated, as Jesus said we would be?

Are you against showing pictures of the Jews starving in the concentration camps, too? Or the photos of the Nazis murdering victims at mass grave sites? Or drowned illegal immigrant children? How about starving children in many parts of Africa or Christians massacred by the Muslims in Nigeria or the Sudan? You oppose all that on the same grounds, too?

Do you oppose showing pictures of black people being lynched and burned to death, or the ones that show the backs of slaves torn to bits by whips? How about the famous videos where the racist police in the South set the dogs on peaceful black protesters and blasted them with fire hoses? Or the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was tortured and murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1955?

From an article about the latter:

The National Museum of African American History and Culture considered Till’s mother’s decision to make the world see her son when they decided to include his casket among its exhibits, which also include a pair of shackles so small that they must have belonged to an enslaved child.

“What this museum is going to do is make sure that America remembers that, at one point — and unfortunately some of that still goes on — we killed our children,” said Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director.

The Wikipedia article on Emmett Till described the influence of the horrific photograph of his mangled face:

Mamie Till Bradley . . . had insisted on an open-casket funeral. Images of Till’s body, printed in The Chicago Defender and Jet magazine, made international news and directed attention to the lack of rights of blacks in the U.S. South. . . .

She decided to have an open-casket funeral, saying, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Tens of thousands of people lined the street outside the mortuary to view Till’s body, and days later thousands more attended his funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.

Photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country, . . . generating intense public reaction. According to The Nation and Newsweek, Chicago’s black community was “aroused as it has not been over any similar act in recent history.” Time later selected one of the Jet photographs showing Mamie Till over the mutilated body of her dead son, as one of the 100 “most influential images of all time”: “For almost a century, African Americans were lynched with regularity and impunity. Now, thanks to a mother’s determination to expose the barbarousness of the crime, the public could no longer pretend to ignore what they couldn’t see.”

Lastly, you don’t understand the very purpose of showing photos of aborted children. The purpose is not to convince a woman intent on killing her child, or the enabling men around her, to not commit the evil act. It almost always won’t have that effect, as you say. You’re right.
The purpose is to reveal the injustice and evil of abortion to the world, just as the photo of the tortured and murdered Emmett Till was not going to convert the murdering racists who did this to him. It was to show the world the outrageous injustice that was being perpetrated on African-Americans in the 1950s. And that was exactly the right thing to do.
Photos or videos of ISIS beheadings do not convert ISIS terrorists. They reveal their terrorism to the world.
Pictures and movies of Nazi concentration camps didn’t convert Nazis. It showed the world how utterly evil they were.
Photographs of the mangled backs of whipped slaves didn’t stop slavery or convert plantation slave owners (it took the Civil War and a constitutional amendment to do that). But it revealed the injustice and the inhumanity of slavery.
Etc., etc. So your whole argument that this doesn’t persuade a woman not to have an abortion is completely beside the point, since it was never the primary purpose of showing abortion photos in the first place.

I will not stop being opposed to the murder of 3000 babies a day in America just so I can win the approval of a pro-abort or a liberal and in order to agree with every jot and tittle of how they go about things.

They say that the prophet Jeremiah preached for sixty years, with absolutely no success or fruit to speak of. Was he to stop preaching the truth because he was utterly rejected?

This debate about showing pictures of abortion has gone on for fifty years now. I continue to find the arguments against it as unconvincing as I always have.


Photo credit: Elvert Barnes: ABORTION NO GRAPHIC DISPLAY at Upper Senate Park on Constitution Avenue near New Jersey Avenue, NW, Washington DC on Wednesday afternoon, 22 January 2014 by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography, en route to 40th MARCH FOR LIFE. [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]


"As a practical consideration, there's the issue of what happens when persecution comes. Wife and ..."

Dialogue: Are More Married Catholic Priests ..."
"My citation is no more "dishonest" than the NABRE Footnotes.7:14 Repeat…prayer: brevity of speech is ..."

Prayer to an Angel: An Explicit ..."
"Well, even if 75% of them do not use the word 'repetition'- the vast majority ..."

Prayer to an Angel: An Explicit ..."
"Dave, your list is good, but I don't think Exodus 23:20-21 would be a good ..."

No Confession to Men in the ..."

Browse Our Archives