CHURCH WORLDWIDE: Abortion Foes Debate Best Approach

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When thousands of abortion opponents gathered on the National Mall for their annual protest march, they were united in their fierce passion for ending a procedure that the Supreme Court legalized 40 years ago in the controversial Roe v. Wade decision.

But they are more divided than ever on how best to rally people to join their cause: shock them with harsh slogans and graphic images of mangled fetuses or convince them with reasonable arguments and affecting ultrasound images.

Prior to the event, Simcha Fisher wrote in the National Catholic Register that graphic photos or videos of aborted babies once shook her out of “a vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause” and turned her into a serious activist.

But she believes that “a public place is not the place to use these images—ever, I’m convinced. These images are like a terrible weapon which should be used with fear and trembling, and only as a last resort.”

Fisher’s view is hardly universal among abortion foes. “America will not reject abortion until America sees abortion,” as the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, likes to say.

Pavone and other longtime veterans of the anti-abortion fight—leaders of the American Life League, Operation Rescue, and the Pro-Life Action League, for example—still see the shock value in gruesome images, which they say are effective and also appropriate to the gravity and reality of the issue.

But they tend to be activists who were mobilized in the early years when the movement rallied supporters with videos like The Silent Scream and drew public attention with guerrilla tactics at abortion clinics.

Now, however, a new generation of activists has a new approach and new tools to make their case in a more appealing way—vivid computer imaging that shows thriving babies in the womb and a growing network of counseling centers that seek to convince pregnant women not to have an abortion.

“You’ve got some who believe in holding up graphic signs of abortion. I’m not one of those and I don’t think that’s the best approach,” Jeanne Monahan, 40, who recently took over as head of the March for Life, said a couple of weeks before this year’s demonstration.

“I think we can be more positive and compelling with science and reason.”

Champions of the soft-sell approach were shocked at last year’s March for Life when one group unveiled a huge video display of graphic images, a tactic that led to a backlash among some abortion opponents and sparked an intense debate in blogs and online forums that has continued.

“In a situation teaching about abortion these are powerful tools, but to thrust it on everyone with no regard or warning is irresponsible and self-righteous,” Theresa Bonopartis, an anti-abortion activist from New York, wrote after the 2012 march.

The debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon. As Monahan said, “Everyone’s . . . got their constitutional right to say what they believe and to do it in the way that they want.”

Moreover, legalized abortion seems to be a settled issue for most Americans, according to various polls. The frustration with the status quo leads some abortion opponents to push for more aggressive PR efforts, notes Michele Dillon, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has written about abortion and the culture wars.

But, she says, the younger generation has the better argument.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence showing that these extreme visual representations have made a dent in the general support for the legalization of abortion,” Dillon said. “It just turns people off.”

In her column on the 40th anniversary of the Roe ruling, Fisher listed many other reasons frequently cited for not using graphic abortion images: to avoid scandalizing children and making women feel rejected, to show respect for the fetus in the images, and to avoid “desensitization” among abortion opponents.

But at the heart of all the advice, she said, is “basic psychology.”

“If you want people to listen to you and have sympathy for your cause,” she wrote, “don’t come across as a lunatic.”

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See comments (5)


I read the article hoping to see that the pro-life camp was divided on the matter of ending abortions. It appears that the issue is more of getting others to join "our side" and hopefully changing laws. Or at the very least how to convince people of our understanding so that they will not make the decision to end a life through abortion. Is there anywhere that the debate is raging on how to work WITH the pro-choice camp to at least find some common ground? What would the pro-life camp be willing to "give up" in order to convince the pro-choice camp that they value a woman's rights to make decisions for her own health? What would the pro-choice camp be willing to give up in order to convince the pro-life camp that they are pro-CHOICE, not pro-abortion? Or am I just being hopelessly naive and optimistic?

Hopelessly naive I think Calvin.  I was part of a Friends (Quakers) sponsored group some years back, one-half pro-life (my side), one-half pro-choice.  The point (what the Friends wanted) was for the two sides to find common ground. After six months of meeting, the group did find a some common ground.  We all agreed it would be good if we together, as a common ground statement, publically said that  both sides support efforts to help women in  their lives generally, especially when pregnant, so that they would find less reason to choose abortion.

So then we went back to our sponsoring groups with our proposal of this "common ground statement."  Those on the pro-life side confirmed their representatives' agreement to make the common ground statement.  But the pro-choice groups rejected it.  Our "common ground" effort ended in that failure.  My take-away, both from discussions during the six months and from the pro-choice organizations' ultimate rejection of the proposed common ground statement, was that at core, the dominant pro-choice forces simply wanted women to have the unconditional right to kill their children in order that they, the women preganant with those children, might have a better life.  Serious proposals have now been published in one of the world's most respectable journals of medical ethics for the legalization and acceptance of infainfanticide, which, it is argued,  supported by precisely the same arguments as those in favor of abortion.  In both cases, the 100% consideration is the life the mother wants to have, and the 0% consideration is the life and welfare of the child.

It's hard to "compromise" with that Calvin.  Thus my vote for hopelessly naive.

Having said that, I'd also suggest this.  This article fails to articulate that their are two objectives at stake for pro-lifers.  One has to do with convincing women not to kill their pre-born children and communicating to society the sacred value of pre-born human life. The other has to do with convincing government to restrain, by law, the right of women to kill their pre-born children and/or the right of third parties to assist in that killing.  Achieving the two objectives may require different "tactics," and some pro-lifers are more concerned with the one and some the other.  

For what its worth, I think the institutional church should involve itself with the former objective but not the latter.  Christians, individually and together in organizations of their choice (e.g., Right to Life), that is, the organic church or the body of believers from all institutional traditions, should involve themselves in both.

Well put, Doug. You speak with the voice of experience rather than theoretical idealism. We'd all like to think  "pro-choicers" were reasonable and willing to compromise, but the reality is that a woman's right to choose trumps all. Thus, for instance, even when it comes to banning abortions in the case of sex-selection (i.e. aborting females because of cultural preferences for male babies) which in theory pro-choicers should support, the leaders of this movement (and their political supporters in a relatively recent vote on the issue) will not "compromise" for fear of opening the door to further restrictions. Certainly, there are fanatic zealots on the pro-life side (and I am not one who supports the use of graphic images), but for the most part the irrational zealotry is on the other side.

Isn't the way to fight every sort of sin to preach Christ and Him crucified? If this isn't sufficient then something is wrong with Christianity.

In the meantime, Bill, babies are dying (being murdered).

Injustice that is invisible is tolerated.

Injustice that is visible is intolerable.

Showing the graphic images makes the injustice of abortion visible, otherwise it is invisible and therefore still being tolerated.