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Abortion photos not dramatic enough?

Abby Johnson and Shawn Carney of 40 Days for Life

Abby Johnson and Shawn Carney of 40 Days for Life

For many months, we have celebrated the conversion of Abby Johnson from abortion clinic director to pro-life activist.  Her conversion is highlighted in her new book, UnPlanned.  We’ve noted here that her conversion was based on seeing pictures of ultrasound.

Despite her support for using graphic image displays (like GAP and the JFA exhibit)  to educate college students about abortion, she has spoken against their use outside abortion clinics.  She reasons that the photos had no effect on her, nor on the women who saw the photos and had abortions anyway.  Of course, this reasoning fails to account for the women who saw the photos and never came into the clinic at all.

We were intrigued by this statement that she made on her Facebook page:

It wasn’t the graphic nature of the ultrasound that turned me away from abortion.  I had seen graphic images before. … I had worked in the lab where the body parts of babies were reassembled.  It was the humanity.  Seeing a child suffer and die, a child who should have been protected.  Humanity is present from the moment of conception.  We must fight to protect it!

This reminds us of something that Joel Belz (World Magazine) wrote a few years ago that we all thought was quite strange at the time:

… when I take issue with Mr. Cunningham’s gruesome pictures, it’s not because they are overly repugnant.  I take issue because they aren’t repugnant enough.  But gripping the heart of the viewer is a subtle matter.  (Not dramatic enough, Joel Belz, World Magazine, January 11, 2003)

Nobody but Belz had ever suggested that our abortion photos were not dramatic enough.  But he was hoping for an image that would capture the precise moment between life and death, the kind of image that Johnson saw on that ultrasound screen.  He went on:

Real emotional involvement comes not with an overly explicit portrayal of death—but with a nuanced portrayal of the delicate balance between death and life.  That’s why the candid photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked down the highway to escape the horrors of napalm probably had as much influence in the late 1960s as any other single factor in turning American public opinion against the war in southeast Asia.  When the photographer snapped that picture, there were almost certainly plenty of dead bodies lying around.  But what memorably captured the hearts of onlookers around the world was the reality of a young woman teetering between life and death.  And that subtlety changed the course of a war.

Such subtlety has generally eluded us in the war against abortion.  We came close, perhaps, in that wonderful and widely circulated operating room photo a year ago showing a tiny baby’s hand reaching up through the incision in his mother’s abdomen.  But that very pro-life picture, breathtaking as it was, said nothing of the terror of abortion.

There were two other images from Vietnam that he could have mentioned (source):

  1. The “Burning Monk” photo, taken June 11, 1963, when Thich Quang Duc sat down in a busy Saigon intersection and set fire to himself to protest the South Vietnamese government.
  2. The “Tet Execution” photo, taken February 1, 1968,  captured the precise moment that a Viet Cong prisoner was executed at point-blank range by the chief of the South Vietnamese National Police.

Both of these photos also capture that moment between life and death that Belz was talking about.  We’re guessing that’s why these three photos were perhaps the three most influential photos of the Vietnam era.  Belz hoped that our movement would capture a similar image of abortion.

But until somebody takes that photo, we’ll keep showing the ones we have!  And to be fair, it would be wrong to assume that most people who see our pictures are operating at anywhere near the level of denial that Abby Johnson exhibited when she was running that clinic.  Her case is very atypical and not at all like most people we encounter.  Most people who see the photos, particularly young people, have not yet had one abortion, let alone run a clinic where thousands were performed.  They cannot sustain, at least not for very long, the level of denial that Johnson conjured up each of the many times she looked at abortion pictures outside, and dead bodies inside, that clinic.

Further, we’re convinced that Johnson’s seeing the abortion photos could have had a subconscious effect that actually did contribute to her eventual conversion.  That’s conjecture on our part, but it is quite possible that the photos played a role at the subconscious level that even Johnson doesn’t fully appreciate.

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4 Responses to “Abortion photos not dramatic enough?”

  1. July 8th, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Nicole W Cooley says:

    Abortion is “just a word” much like murder is “just a word.” We can’t put our finite minds around the multi-dimensional horror of those words. I think perhaps that people might believe that abortion is somehow a benein procedure…like how pets are put to sleep in vet clinics. But, abortion is far worse….and something we would never dream of subjecting our beloved pets to. Some post-abortive women even go so far to claim their baby somehow consented to abortion…that they talked to them beforehand. Again, this is denial at its most extreme…you must be at this level of denial in order to participate in abortion in any way. We know that denial has a sedative effect – it numbs you. It is the mind’s way of coping with that which it cannot process. Thank goodness Abby has emerged out of the grips of denial! We must continue to pray for those trapped in the abortion industry – and those women suffering in the aftermath of abortion. We must also continue to tell the truth as boldly, and truthfully as we can, to spare countless women (and their unborn children) from the tragedy and trauma of abortion.

  2. July 11th, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Pam C says:

    Ummm … a minor little detail here that seems to get glossed over repeatedly. One of Abby’s “skills” and one of the details of her job was to “reassemble the body parts of babies” who had been viciously torn apart in their mother’s womb. No wonder the “graphic images” in the pictures did not phase her!!! If holding the babies tiny arms and legs, their heart, their head, looking into their precious faces and then piecing those viciously murdered, dismembered babies back together didn’t TEAR at her heart, why would a photograph have ANY impact whatsoever?!

  3. July 12th, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    (Prolifer)ations 7-12-11 - Jill Stanek says:

    […] Fletcher Armstrong examines the possibility that abortion photos are not graphic enough because they do not “capture the precise moment between life and death, the kind of image that [former Planned Parenthood director Abby] Johnson saw on that ultrasound screen.” […]

  4. July 21st, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Kim Anderson says:

    I agree with Abby…gruesome photos have a place on campuses and about town, but NOT in front of a clinic. Having sidewalk counseled, I can tell you that the woman entering is not concerned about the baby at that moment…just herself. I have had much greater success turning around a woman by offering to help HER and making it about HER. “Please come over and chat with me and let me help you.” and if the woman is clearly going in, “If you feel they don’t have your best interests a heart in there…if they are not listening and helping you, please come back out and we can chat. We are here to help you.” Outside of a clinic, the WOMAN-CENTERED approach has been far more effective when sidewalk counseling. Again, I DO think the photos are great at highschools, colleges and city events and am humbled by the work groups like CBR and GAP are doing.

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