Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tactics; or, Those Crazy Pro-Life Fanatics

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.


Deirdre Mundy said...

Great post, Erin.

I've also noticed that the men in my life respond differently to the graphic images than the women do.

My husband's policy is "ignore it, just don't look." And it works for him.

Unfortunately, I usually catch a little glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, and it's enough to throw off my whole day....

Protestors who have never been pregnant might not understand the strong, negative effect these photos have on pregnant women who AREN'T considering abortion.

As in, you're driving down the road, talking to your unborn child, and the photo nearly makes you drive into a ditch.

Or, even worse, the effect on women who've miscarried and had to hold their own, tiny, blood--covered, 10-week-old baby and check to see if he came out all in one piece.

The pro-life movement has an undeserved reputation for being anti-woman. Stunts like this don't help.

I also agree that for rallys, 4-D ultrasound photos are awesome. People LIKE cute babies. They want to protect them. "Look, your baby is already cute!" is a strong emotional argument.

Remember that "Life, What a Beautiful Choice" Ad campaign that was so successful? All it was was photos of cute babies.

I admit that I'm emotional on the subject of graphic photos, because they affect me so strongly. But when you see a sign that says "warning, graphic photos ahead," you don't always have the option of taking a different route.

(For the record, most of the young moms I know feel the same way. We're often pregnant, or with a newborn, and we have small children who don't need to see the horrors of abortion up close. They already KNOW babies are good and killing them is bad. Graphic photos don't just alienate your enemies, they alienate your supporters, too!)

Anonymous said...

I see what you are saying but the media is going to do what they are going to do. I would never want to discourage someone from protesting because they felt inadequate to answer questions. Some people need to see the pictures. Even if you erased all those "negative" elements from protests, you still have the chance that the media will find you boring and not cover it at all. Don't get me wrong. It is good to know this. And in other ways we can keep reaching out but I am not going to let the media and how they cover and view prolife activists stop me.

LarryD said...

Erin - I wrote up a proposal that, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, hasn't been considered. In all seriousness, I'd be interested in your take.

big said...

A reasoned and well thought out position.
When I see our friends with the Baby dolls and bloody shirts with the very graphic posters, I immediately think of those garish San Francisco gay pride parades.
Not the immage we want to project to the public sitting down to Dinner while watching the news.

Melanie B said...

Thank you. I've been thinking along similar lines recently and you articulate it so well. Especially as a mother of young children, I am already so concerned about images that my children encounter. It makes me so sad and a but angry to think of having to explain a picture of an aborted baby to my 3 year old daughter. There's a picture book we have of the life of Mary that includes an image of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents that makes me cringe: What's that baby doing, mama? Bad men were hurting the babies, dear. Sorry, she's not old enough to know that she lives in a world where bad men deliberately hurt babies. There's a time for her to learn that but not until she's older.

And the thing is I'm sympathetic to the protester holding the sign. How much would it alienate a pro-choice mother or a woman who is on the fence about the issue? I can see a woman who might be swayed by an image of an ultrasound closing her heart to the message because of her distress at a bloody picture.

The problem with such images carried in public is that they potentially do more harm to the cause than good. The bottom line: what are you trying to achieve with such a sign? Is this the best tactic to use? So sad that people are blind to the damage they are doing to the cause they love.

CrimsonCatholic said...

For the record, most of the young moms I know feel the same way.Here's a comment from the young mom to whom I'm married from a similar discussion:
"[A]s a parent and knowing that these forms of protest are out there, I have an answer - that is personally acceptable to me and my family - ready for what I would tell my children regarding the subject and what they are seeing."

The unstated premise, of course, is that it also forces pro-choice parents to make the same explanation. In other words, maybe "How do I explain something like that to my kid?" is the right question for us to be asking as a society.

I may be out of the mainstream on this one, but I tend to think that a kid who is old enough to ask is probably old enough to receive some sort of answer, even if it's as simple as "sometimes bad men kill people."

Melanie B said...

Crimson, Catholic,

"it also forces pro-choice parents to make the same explanation"

Well, yes. it forces them to say something. But in how many cases is their answer going to be your answer and mine? And in how many cases is the "bad man" going to be the pro-lifer holding the sign and not the doctor who performed the abortion? In how many cases is it going to just make her hostile to the pro-life cause, to close off in her mind any question about or openness to what the pro-lifer is proposing? In my experience with actually knowing pro-choice women, these tactics do not make them thoughtfully consider the pro-life perspective but throw up walls that prohibit communication. They only reinforce the idea that pro-lifers are the enemy and unreasonable and don't care about women and mothers. And frankly, it seems to me that maybe they're just a little bit correct. Does the person holding that sign really care about the feelings and experiences of post-abortive mothers or women who have had miscarriages or mothers with innocent three-year-olds? As a mom of a 3 year old who doesn't want to have to answer that question, not yet, who wants to shield my innocent daughter from the cruelties of the world just a little longer, your answer seems to miss the point and be unduly dismissive of my very real concerns.

CrimsonCatholic said...

As a mom of a 3 year old who doesn't want to have to answer that question, not yet, who wants to shield my innocent daughter from the cruelties of the world just a little longer, your answer seems to miss the point and be unduly dismissive of my very real concerns.I don't want to dismiss your concerns or to deny that they are real. What I want to deny is further implication that anyone who thinks otherwise must therefore be oblivious to your concerns.

Look at your own question: "Does the person holding that sign really care about the feelings and experiences of post-abortive mothers or women who have had miscarriages or mothers with innocent three-year-olds?" That's a very serious question about someone's motives.

My wife and I have a three-year-old child, who is presumably just as innocent as any other three-year-old, and we want to protect him from unneeded emotional trauma just as much as any other parents do. We have several friends and relatives who have suffered miscarriages, including miscarriages that required delivery. We have many pro-choice friends (probably about half, much like the country). In short, we definitely care about all of the concerns you listed.

Even sharing those serious concerns, we still think that there is a real question as to what is needed at this time to shock the conscience of America out of its torpor on this issue. At the very least, I don't feel qualified to judge the hearts of people who feel that graphic depictions of violence might be the most effective way to do it. We can talk about the wisdom of the tactic and how the message will be (rightly or not) be perceived. But I've got to draw the line at calling them uncharitable or saying that they are even just a little bit "unreasonable" or that they "don't care about women and mothers."

If we're talking about how things are being perceived, then it seems to me that the suggestion is being made that anyone who uses graphic images is oblivious to their impact, either because of being male and and not knowing what it's like to have or to lose a child (which clearly doesn't apply to my wife) or being insensitive to those concerns (which doesn't apply to either of us).

Now maybe I'm a bad parent for thinking that my kids are ready for this concept at such a young age, even if I'm not going to go out of the way to tell them. If you want to judge me for that, then I'm at least here to defend myself. But it looks to me like people took Ms. Manning's post (which I thought was entirely reasonable) as an excuse to pile judgment on those who aren't here to defend themselves, and I don't think that's right.


Anonymous said...

Powerful images are weapons that need to be used judiciously. The last thing we need is to desensitise the public even more.

I know from my library studies and other subsequent security studies, that negative images (in that case, vandalised books) actual stimulate imitation. In contrast, positive images and messages are needed to evoke cooperation from the public.

Pro life people need to keep the focus off the abortion and put it back where it belongs, with the LIFE we are promoting. Otherwise the pro-abortion forces choose the battleground and set the terms of debate.

What we are promoting, gorgeous babies, is far nicer than the death the abortion-mongers are selling!

Melanie B said...


You misunderstand me, read too much into what I say.

I also don't feel qualified to judge other's motives or hearts. In fact I am positive that their motives are good and their hearts in the right place. But I do question their prudence and the effectiveness of their tactics. And it does seem to me that they are oblivious to the way that their tactics are really going to be perceived. I used to teach composition and I believe the backbone of effective communication is understanding your audience. I think that although their motives are all for the good they make a major miscalculation and seriously don't understand the way these signs will really affect people. It's mostly a matter of not really being able to put yourself into someone else's shoes and see things from their perspective.

I certainly never meant to judge you or other parents for your judgment about what your children are or are not ready for. Being a parent means precisely that you are the final judge of what works best for your family, for your children. It means making tough calls despite what others are doing. And if my decisions don't look like yours that's because we are different people and have different children. But that's precisely my point. What works for you doesn't work for me and as a mother I strongly feel that I have an obligation to do what I think is best for my children, to protect their innocence and to defend them from all evil, even if what I perceive as bad for my children is done with good intentions by well meaning folk with whom I am in almost everything else in complete agreement. I don't pass judgment on any individuals present to defend themselves or not, I merely mean to raise questions. If the aim of the pro life movement is to defend the innocent then we should care for all victims and all innocents. I'm not saying graphic pictures should never be used but I think they should be used judiciously and with a very sensitive eye toward the most vulnerable for whom they may be too strong a medicine. The problem is there may be some people for whom such shock tactics do work but the approach is scattershot and hits too many people for whom such images do more harm than good. Yes some children can handle it yes some women who are post-abortive or who have suffered miscarriages can handle them. But not all. I for one after having lost my baby at 10 weeks can't handle looking at such pictures. It tears me up. But let's not make this about individual anecdotal evidence. My real question is this: Does the harm done in any of those circumstances where the message alienates or hurts justify the good done when the tactic is effective and you get through to a hardened heart? It seems to me a case of doing bad in some circumstances so that good may result in others and that doesn't really seem compatible with what being pro-life means to me.

Melanie B said...

Sorry, reading over my response I realize I wasn't very clear.

What I meant to say is that motivations are beside the point, what I meant to argue in my comment was not intentions and what lies in people's hearts but about perception.

The thing is that graphic images do not appeal to reason but to emotion and emotion is a strong thing to unleash because it isn't easily guided into the channels you want it to follow. It's a risky tactic at best. I am staunchly prolife and think abortion is an abomination and consider myself a reasonable person. And yet I must confess when I see protesters carrying signs with these images my mind tends to shut down and I become pure emotion, anger lashing out not only at those who perpetuate the institution of abortion but against those who wield the signs. And though reason does kick in again and yes I withhold judgment and yes I give them the benefit of the doubt, realizing that their intentions are good and our aims are the same even if I disagree with their tactics; still, the strength of my reaction toward the sign wielders as a mother cannot be denied. And yes I do realize not everyone feels the same way, that you and your wife and many of your acquaintances don't feel the same way about what needs to be kept from your child; but this is how I feel as a mother toward my child. And I am certain I'm not alone.

The bottom line is that while I am willing to withhold judgment about motives, I know that many critics of the pro-life movement and even many who are sympathetic but still on the line are not going to have the same reasonable reaction. One critique of the pro-life movement you hear loudest and most frequently is that pro-lifers don't care about anyone except the unborn and that their concern does not reach to mothers and children. Yes, I disagree and think that is not at all true of any prolifers I've ever met. Like I said, it's all about perception: I think shock tactics only confirm that popular misconception of the radical prolifer who is unreasonable and who doesn't care. Again, I agree with you that it's a misconception. But surely you agree that that is how pro-lifers are deliberately portrayed by the media and by the pro-choice movement? And if that is the case then why play into the hands of our critics?