Years ago, I had the chance to take a class on human life issues with Rita Marker; the class covered abortion and euthanasia as well as the death penalty, unjust war, and other themes relating to Catholic teaching on issues pertaining to the sanctity of human life.
One thing that struck me at the time was Mrs. Marker's insistence that we act carefully when presenting ourselves as "spokespeople" on these issues, even if we were just being interviewed by a local newspaper or TV channel. The media, she said at the time, loves to stereotype pro-lifers. They look for the most elderly woman carrying the biggest, most garish rosary beads, or for the person who is a walking pro-life billboard covered in signs and messages not all of which are as coherent as they should be. If they approach college students, they're looking for people who are camera-shy and inarticulate, but who will agree to be interviewed on the mistaken notion that it's better to speak out badly than remain silent eloquently. They will almost never seek out calm, quiet people who are capable of saying a few words about abortion without shouting or becoming angry; they avoid the well-dressed, the professional, the poised young man or woman, or anybody else who doesn't fit the media's template that all pro-life Americans are really wild-eyed crazed fanatics, only a stick of dynamite short of blowing up an abortion clinic.
More than twenty years have passed since I took that class, but the media's approach to the pro-life movement hasn't changed. Sadly, neither has the pro-life movement, which seems to have a never-ending supply of people who designate themselves as spokesmen for the movement without taking the least amount of pains not to fall into the media's stereotype trap. Though their sincerity, their love for the unborn, their zeal for life, and their passionate devotion to the truth are above question, their tactics are not. And while some of those tactics may be effective and provide the kind of silent witness to the sanctity of life that can help change hearts and minds, others are not helpful; still others may work well in one-on-one or small group settings, but have a tendency to backfire when engaged in amidst a hostile crowd.
The three tactics that I think need to be examined seriously by anyone engaging in pro-life activism are the following: civil disobedience, theatrics, and use of graphic photos and images of aborted children. I recognize that there will be disagreement on these specific tactics, and on the advisability of their use in different circumstances, but I'd like those who discuss this in the comment box to remember that we're on the same side here, and that if we disagree about how to defend life, we still agree that life must be defended.
The first tactic, civil disobedience, has a venerable pedigree. No one can forget the civil rights movement and the courage of those willing to be arrested to demonstrate the unequal and unjust treatment of African-Americans in this country; the sight of protesters being arrested for trespassing or for other acts of civil disobedience today evokes those images of courage of the relatively recent past. And civil disobedience usually is quite civil; that is, protesters planning to be arrested in the defense of unborn life usually intend to go along quietly when asked to do so.
The sight of Fr. Weslin being arrested on a Catholic college for speaking up for the sanctity of human life is a powerful image. The young people who were arrested trying to bring a cup of water to the dying Terri Schiavo also said more than many who wrote and spoke eloquently for weeks before. These images tend to linger in our minds, provoking reflection and even prayer. Most of the time, then, I'm inclined to think that those protesting in this way are doing good.
Unfortunately the first tactic is often combined with or associated with the second, that of theatrics. I should say right out that I don't think theatrics are generally an effective means of protest, whatever the cause, or whatever the specifics. When the issue is one of as great seriousness as abortion, theatrics tend to dilute and pollute the message, not spread it or create sympathy for it. And the media loves this stuff--they love to talk about people at pro-life marches or events carrying a blood-dripped cross or waving homemade signs with lengthy, conspiracy-oriented slogans; they loved, in the Notre Dame coverage, to talk about the protesters who showed up on campus with "bloody" red-painted baby dolls in strollers.
Theatrics are juvenile. They reduce the protest to a kind of street performance, and seek to draw attention by being shocking, vulgar, crude, or loud. And since our enemies in the press would like nothing better than to tell America the lie that this is what pro-life activism means, theatrics just play into the media's hand; those engaging in theatrics will get all the attention they crave, but none of it will do the cause any good.
The third tactic is always a subject of controversy--do we show pictures of aborted fetuses in our discussions of abortion, or don't we? I think we do--sometimes. I like that Priests for Life's website has such pictures, and that they clearly label them "graphic" before you click on a link to see them; no one is going to stumble across these photos without knowing what they're about to see. I also know that sidewalk counselors have found these pictures helpful, along with pictures of living babies in the womb--but again, these images are used when a woman considering abortion has asked to see them, and is prepared to face the reality of what she is thinking of doing. Another time we might use these images is in real-life or online discussions with people about abortion--but we should preface this by saying "I have (or can link to) a picture of a first-trimester abortion, if you'd like to see that the baby really does have hands or feet etc. at that age," giving our conversational partner the opportunity to say, "No, thanks," if they're unprepared to see a graphic picture.
Thanks to the tremendous leaps in 3D and 4D ultrasounds, though, it's not always necessary to show a graphic image of a child's death by abortion in order to make our points about the humanity of the unborn baby. And it seems to me that any time our pictures will be seen by crowds of people, our preferred option should be to show these sorts of images, not the ones of abortion itself. Is this a shrinking from the truth, or an abandonment of our tiny brothers and sisters so cruelly murdered in their mother's wombs? No; I think it's an act of prudence, given that anyone from very small children to grieving post-abortive women might be present in the crowd, and instead of standing in solidarity with all our fellow pro-life Americans, we might be adding to the pain some of them live with every day.
This does not mean that these images ought never to be used, of course, but again, in a protest we hope will be covered by the media, "graphic pictures of abortion" comes right behind "baby dolls covered in fake blood" in their list of things that many Americans won't understand and will therefore reject about the pro-life movement.
Granted, all of the above are my opinions; I'm sure that others may disagree. But we've been at this fight for a long time, and it seems sad to me that the same tactics which Rita Marker warned our class about a couple of decades ago are still creating all the noise and thunder on the pro-life side--and still being held up for derision and ridicule by the press, which continues to convince ordinary Americans that they are nothing like those crazy pro-life fanatics.