A new US-supported pro-life organisation currently maintains a protest outside a Brighton abortuary, where it displays graphic abortion images. The purpose of this is ostensibly to show the women going for abortions the reality of what they are about to allow to be done to them and to their child, and thereby dissuade them from going through with it. I do not doubt the good motivations of this campaign, and do not believe the intention behind it is to bully or intimidate women. Indeed, I have defended their right to protest, against accusations of illegal “harassment”. I think it is also important, however, to give clear and total opposition to such tactics on the grounds that their effects are profoundly counterproductive, not merely to the express aims of such protests, but to the health of the pro-life lobby in Britain.
While there are some women who may be convinced into not having an abortion at the sight of such images, there are other women for whom such images will only offend, harden their hearts, and resolve them to go ahead, undermining any thoughts they may have had of keeping their baby. More widely, the impact such images have on the general public can also be toxic. Many people resent not only being shown nasty pictures unsolicited as they walk down the street, but having their children exposed to gory photography.
This natural disgust and resentment is then exploited gleefully by the abortion lobby, who proceed to caricature pro-lifers as cruel and unfeeling bullies who wish to browbeat and shame vulnerable women. Such mud sticks, and not just to some protestors but to us all, hampering serious attempts to change the culture and the law by mainstream pro-life groups. None of this is fair, but it is reality.
This is not to say that visual presentations of abortion or its consequences are never appropriate or effective. I was myself converted from being radically pro-abortion to pro-life while at secondary school, within 10 minutes of being shown an image of an aborted foetus. Even in that setting, though, the employment of such pictures can have mixed effects. One colleague of mine who has years of experience in both abortion counselling and in pro-life school presentations, has recounted to me how showing graphic images in schools can often provoke anger and defensiveness (including for fellow pupils who have had abortions) rather than sympathy for the unborn.
The diversity of effects these pictures engender is due to the diversity of human beings, their psychologies, and their perspectives. Organisations like the Vitae Foundation make the point that women in a crisis pregnancy situation have a host of “right-brained” emotional factors that feed into their decision-making, and thus arguments and images that might convince someone coming from a more detached and abstract “left-brained” perspective (such as my teenage pro-abortion self) will either have no effect, or push them in the opposite direction. The foundation’s research on the efficacy of graphic portrayals bears this out.
Other issues, such as the ethics of such images (the instrumentalised abuse and manipulated portrayal of dead human bodies), could also be raised in objection to these campaigns. A crucial point however, is that while pro-life protestors need to reach out to all kinds of people, and tell the whole truth about abortion, they have to realise that the efficacy of certain tactics will be hugely context-specific. In a voluntary and considered academic setting, graphic images may very well be helpful. Presenting them outside an abortuary, however, or indeed any public space, will largely lead to the alienation of women who might otherwise have been open to persuasion by a gentler approach, as well as the general public, without whom a lasting cultural and political change towards the ultimate end of abortion will never occur.