Should Christian (Catholic or Evangelical) prolife organizations use graphic images of aborted fetuses?

Note: This article is the result of a conversation Hugh had with a dedicated Catholic prolifer who objects to the use of graphic images

There is no more important moral issue of our time than abortion, and in the 40 or so years since it has been legal, people of good will have been strategizing how to protect the unborn from this merciless and apparent victory by the evil one. Every Catholic would agree, the ends cannot justify the means, and therefore any strategy adopted to combat abortion must be just, in and of itself.

For a number of years some Catholic and Protestant prolife organizations have embraced the public-showing of images of unborn victims of abortion that were obtained through covert operations. Some feel the use of graphic images is not just, in and of itself (the means), and therefore illicit.

The reasons that advocates of graphic images find them effective (the end) include:

  • Some people who were in favour of abortion but uninvolved with abortion have changed their minds on the issue after seeing the images
  • Some children have been saved because mothers contemplating abortion have seen the images before committing abortion
  • It’s the truth about what is happening
  • Legislation has been introduced in some areas, and these images have informed the consciences of decision-makers
  • It has led people who were involved with abortion to repentance
  • It leverages the first amendment in the US, and free speech legislation in Canada

What about images of martyrs?

Catholics depict saints who have been martyred in a very unique way, holding or experiencing the instrument which killed him. St. Bartholomew is holding the skin of his face which was removed during his martyrdom, St. Sebastian with arrows impaled in him, etc. Why do we do this? We propose that it reminds us of the horrific suffering they endured for the sake of the Kingdom.

Can we not compare this to the unborn -- did the unborn not also suffer horrifically for the sake of the kingdom? Every unborn child is a member of the Kingdom of Heaven because they were created by God, to love and to serve Him. This is the official teaching of the Church regarding why humans are created. Up until the time of their death, they fulfilled their mission.

The Catechism teaches, “We trust infants who die before baptism to the Mercy of God.” Most theologians today say they go to Heaven, and there is much discussion at the highest levels about proclaiming that as a fundamental Catholic doctrine, placing them as part of the Body of Christ, His Church.

Catholics display relics, the body of the martyr. Although it could be argued they freely chose death for Christ whereas an unborn victim didn’t have that chance, We can also understand there are significant comparisons to be drawn between images of martyrs and images of unborn victims.

  • They were both killed by a perversion of justice
  • They are God’s children
  • They were both fulfilling God’s mission for their lives at the time of death
  • They were killed violently
  • Their display helps society understand the innocence of their plight, and helps people and society realize the wrong path they are on, and orient them towards the right path
  • Many theologians would say the children are members of the Body of Christ
  • Their images unmasks the face of evil that hitherto was hidden in the shadows

Of course there are many areas where there is no overlap, such as the images of the unborn are not venerated or considered holy, because there was no personal decision involved in their death such as “renounce Christ or die”.

The Church’s tacit acceptance of graphic images

Priests for Life were granted official status by the Vatican and we know of no sanctioning regarding their use of images on their website. However, they provide warnings on their website before encountering images. The organization is under the bishop of Amarillo, TX, and Staten Island, NY.

Since 1989, the Jesuit priest Fr. Tony Van Hee has been on Parliament Hill daily. His ministry is to sit beside a photo of an unborn victim of abortion wearing his Roman collar, answer questions and of course to pray. We asked him if there were any attempts to stop him. He said, “Yes, they said it traumatized children but we told them of the interested child who was not traumatized but went up close and pointed to it.” Year in and year out his religious order has allowed him to continue and has honoured him. The legislators allow him to stay and many greet him in the mornings. Two bishops have supported him. I’ve never, in my years in this movement, heard any criticism of Tony from any pro-lifer. He is considered a hero by most.

Every year more and more bishops show up at the March for Life. Three Cardinals have attended consistently for 5 years. They may not approve of the unauthorized use of images on the March, but again there is no official Catholic position. Time will tell what the Church will rule, but in every civilized country for years there has been a March for Life where these images have been used. So far, never has a bishop said Catholics cannot attend because of the illicit use of images. They show up and support the March. In Washington the number of bishops is staggering. There appears to be tacit agreement and a precedent that says, in times of extreme evil, extreme responses that are not evil in and of themselves are licit.

There is one exception. The Alberta bishops, particularly Bishop Henry, and Bishop Richard Smith have opted out of the March for Life in Alberta because the organizers could not guarantee that there would be no graphic images there. The bishops said they did not want to give the impression that they are endorsing the images. This is the province where the CCBR is located and has drawn a lot of attention. The bishops did not try to steer Catholics away from the March, nor do they forbid Catholics from working with the CCBR, so it seems like a very mixed message.

Are the images evil?

Are the images evil? They show the effects of evil on God’s creatures, but we would suggest it is not evil to show evil. In Ignatian exercises it explains how the devil works. One principle is that he is like a “jealous lover” who doesn’t want to be found out. He works in secret, and doesn’t like his evil to be exposed. What happens in an abortion facility has long been shrouded in a cloak of ambiguity. However, in recent years it is being exposed -- the images expose the devil’s work for what it is. The greatest opponent of their use is the abortion industry.

Objections and responses

One objection is that if the Church shows these graphic images, it could deter people involved in abortion from coming to the source of forgiveness, which is Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation in the Church. We expect Human Life International, Fr. Tony Van Hee, and Priests for Life would argue against that. That rationale can be compared to an alcoholic who has been involved in a drinking and driving incident. Would seeing accident scene photos cause them to repent and seek help for their problem? We would say yes, because it has caused some alcoholics to turn around.

It is also noteworthy that “Silent No More” - an initiative of mothers and fathers who have been involved in abortion - is hosted by Priests for Life, who, as mentioned previously, show images of unborn victims. As a member, and as someone who was involved with organizers of SNM, I’ve never seen any other member express concern that the host of Silent No More also hosts the graphic use of images. Nor has any member we know claimed to have been traumatized.

However, we have heard of women who have had abortions being triggered by what Angelina Steenstra calls “abortion connectors”, such as the sound of vacuum that reminds the woman of the aspirator that sucked the remains of her child out of her. We don’t think we are considering banning the use of vacuums.

We are suggesting that the source of any such trauma is not the image. Anything could trigger the trauma. The source of the trauma is the abortion itself. And until that is dealt with there may be any number of problems in the woman or man’s life.

Pictures of Rwanda, the Holocaust, KKK lynching, etc. were not used in Catholic circles, but rather the product of secular debate which used them to galvanize the condemnation of those genocides. Perhaps there should be debate over whether they should be used in Church activities. Perhaps the use of these images violates the dignity of the person or plays into society’s use of gratuitous violence as some say and therefore should not be a core apologetic for the official Church. These are legitimate lines of discussion that We would be interested in seeing debated.

Perhaps the use of images of unborn victims negatively affects some who have miscarried. Again, We know many women who have experienced miscarriage and yet advocate their use. So We can’t seem to find a justification for their prohibition there.

One indication of the effectiveness of images is that our opponents, those standing against life, vigorously try to work against the display of these images. One would think that if graphic images of unborn victims were turning people away from the Church that our opponents would welcome the use of them.

Center for Bioethical Research (CBR) and its Canadian Counterpart CCBR

Perhaps the biggest reason why graphic images have come to the forefront of debate is because the CBR and it's Candian counterpart CCBR are forcing the issue in a way that has not been seen before. The CRB was founded by Ian Cummings, an Evangelical in the US, who obtained the photos in a covert way, and made it his mission to put these images of unborn victims in front of the general public, including Christian churches which he felt were being complacent. His strategy resonated with Stephanie Grey, a Canadian Catholic, and Jojo Ruba, an energetic young Evangelical who led Protestant prolife groups while in college. They began the CCBR, a Canadian offshoot of the CBR.

Their combination of mural sized images, civil disobedience, provocative approach, intentional unpredictability, and entrance into public spaces including campuses and near high schools has caused high profile legal clashes with public institutions, and simultaneously galvanized and polarized the prolife movement. They are the fastest growing, most active prolife group in Canada for their size.

The CCBR does not want any explicit relationship to the Catholic Church and has repeatedly distanced itself from Catholic Church teachings on these issues as well as life and family fundamentals such as chastity, contraception, and artificial insemination.

They do not want to be under the authority of a bishop. There is not much talk of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit in their literature. There are no rosaries or pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They present themselves as a mainly secular organization, although they have Catholic and Evangelical members and occasionally discuss matters of faith.

The CCBR cites a number of reasons for not plugging into the Catholic prolife ecosystem, partially because there has been reluctance by prolife organizers to explicitly include them in prolife events. The CCBR feel their mission is to use images and reason. They think that “functioning consciences” of secular people will take it from there and it will become “unthinkable’. They do not want to be encumbered by any prejudices that an anti-Catholic culture holds against the Church.

Bishop Henry of Calgary would not endorse the CCBR or let them use Catholic communication networks, Church property, or resources. It makes sense that if they do not want to place themselves under his authority, and he cannot control the message they present in his Churches, that he cannot allow them in. Bishop Henry proposes that the images undermine the dignity of the victims. The CCBR respond that historically, victims always want their plight known, and want the world to see what is happening to them.

One thing is for sure, the CCBR is freer to act quickly, provocatively, risk lawsuits and arrests, when having no religious authority from which to seek approval, which They see as an advantage.

The CCBR is an enigma for many of us who have been around the Catholic prolife movement for a long time. Many of us disagree with some aspects of their approach, such as not being more holistic about related sex and moral issues, and for going the secular route.  History will decide the degree to which to which they are effective at bringing an end to abortion.

Bishop Henry has not forbidden Catholics from participating in the CCBR, which is what one would expect if the CCBR was truly violating the dignity of the person with their use of images. This is the key issue for our current discussion.

Let's see a debate

We've seen many debates between prolifers and pro-aborts. However, We would like to see a public debate between two knowledgeable Catholic prolifers - one in favour of images and one against. There should be several questions debated:

  • Should the Church, specifically the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pope, and the College of Cardinals allow the use of graphic images in its dialogue and teaching (with warnings as Priests for Life do on their website) or should they condemn them, or should they continue to remain silent (which is tacit agreement of their use)?
  • Is it a heresy to compare images of the unborn to images of the Christ or of graphic images of martyrs such as St. Bartholomew or St. Sebastian? Why or why not?
  • Should graphic images be allowed in secular debate (with warnings as the CCBR does on their website)?
  • Should Catholics be allowed or forbidden to participate?
  • Should graphic images be allowed at Church sponsored events?
  • Should graphic images be forced on unprepared people in public spaces without warning by secular prolife organizations (such as the CCBR and Show the Truth do)?
  • Are there ANY circumstances where they could or should be used or ANY situations where they should not be used?

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