One way defenders of the unborn attempt to dissuade people from being pro-choice is by holding up signs with images of aborted fetuses on them. They believe the more people are exposed to the sheer brutality of abortion, the likelier it is they will embrace the pro-life perspective.
Unfortunately, pro-life advocates in Colorado may not have the chance to do that if the U.S. Supreme Court does not overturn a Colorado state court decree that bars individuals in Denver from “displaying large posters or similar displays depicting gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies.”
According to a March 6th news release from the Thomas More Society, a group of pro-life advocates held up “gruesome images” of aborted fetuses across the street from an outdoor Palm Sunday service at Denver’s St. John’s Cathedral several years ago when they learned the church no longer held pro-life views.
The Colorado court system ruled that the individuals can no longer hold up their signs because the state has a compelling interest in disallowing children who may have been attending St. John’s, an Episcopal church, from seeing images of aborted fetuses.
The Thomas More Society is now asking the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. The Society’s president and chief counsel Tom Brejcha said:
We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will hear our appeal and put an end to such persistent efforts by government officials to wield the censor’s scissors to suppress vital pro-life speech. Photos are anathema to pro-abortion advocates because they expose the grim truth that abortion is both repulsive and grisly. If America insists on abortion rights, it must face up to these ugly results
Although holding up signs with images of aborted fetuses on them can be effective, it is not an uncontroversial issue within the pro-life movement. In fact, National Catholic Register blogger Simcha Fisher urged attendees at this year’s March for Life not to bring signs that had images of aborted fetuses on them. In her column, Simcha argues that when we “use pictures of real babies as a tactic or a tool, we are in danger of forgetting that these are children with an immortal soul.” Souls that deserve “respect.”
At the same time, Simcha says “bloody and shocking images have their place” in the abortion debate because too “many people who are pro-choice” still “don’t know what fetuses actually look like, or what happens to them when they are aborted.” Therefore, people should be exposed to the gruesome reality of abortion, but only as a “weapon of last resort.”
I believe Simcha is correct. Though at times it can be a useful tactic, showing pictures of tattered limbs and bloodied carcasses does have its limits. Seeing the acidized remains of aborted babies, after all, can simply gross some people out and can easily turn them off to the pro-life message entirely.
Simcha concludes her column by arguing that “like any traumatic image, [seeing an aborted fetus] will stay with you.” And seeing those images “once or twice in a lifetime” is probably enough.
Her sentiments are in alignment with what was said on the same topic by a panel of experts at the Catholic Witness in a Nation Divided conference I attended in Ypsilanti, Michigan earlier this year.
Catholic Vote contributor Michael New, Ave Maria Radio’s Teresa Tomeo, director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society Dr. Monica Miller, and national director of Priests for Life Fr. Frank Pavone participated in a discussion on pro-life issues at the conference. When the issue of aborted fetuses came up, all of them expressed their support for using graphic images to make sure people know the truth about abortion. They cautioned pro-lifers about using them too much, but Fr. Pavone summed up their collective voice best when he said pro-life advocates must continue to use those types of posters because images are very powerful and can compel us to change our views.
In an interview with Catholic columnist Matt Abbott, Fr. Pavone shared his thoughts on the Thomas More case in Colorado:
It doesn’t take years of law school to see the unconstitutional nature of this Colorado decree, especially given the fact that free speech is protected precisely because the speaker often needs protection from those who will try to shut down his message because it is disturbing.
The need to disturb the public with graphic images of abortion, furthermore, is simply another incarnation of a longstanding history of social reform in which reformers have disturbed the public with images of slaves in the slave ships, or children in sordid working conditions in mines and factories, or holocaust victims, or the damage smoking does to the lungs, or the disastrous results of drunk driving. The list goes on and on. One cannot rationally ban ‘gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies’ without striking a blow against the entire history of social reform.
I don’t always agree with Fr. Pavone, but I see nothing wrong in this statement. Nor do I see anything inherently wrong with holding up signs with images of aborted fetuses on them. What I think is wrong is when judges intentionally suppress the freedoms of those who disagree with them on abortion. I believe this is one of those instances.