Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Joanna Jepson: gory pro-life pictures are counterproductive

Comment: before this disappears from the Catholic Herald website, here is The Rev. Joanna Jepson's article, on a topic of great importance to to the Pro-Life cause. Jepson sprang to fame for attempting a legal challenge to abortions for minor, correctable defects such as cleft palettes in 2003. On the question of using gruesome pictures of aborted babies for the pro-life cause, we are in complete agreement with her: "Pro-lifers don’t disagree with abortion because of what it looks like but because of what it does." To suggest otherwise trivialises the pro-life case and turns the audience off. We hope that this article signals an end to the strange support the Catholic Herald has been giving to the UK Life League, the most active exponent of the 'shock tactic' approach in the UK.

From the Catholic Herald, in part: I recently saw a photograph of an aborted baby’s head – or perhaps I should stick to the technical term ‘foetus’ and not mislead people with emotive language – held by forceps over a jar. Perhaps you know the one I mean. Apparently it has been well circulated on the international pro-life scene since it was taken in 1987.

Next to the head are some vital statistics which claim that the gestational age is somewhere in the third trimester, which would explain why she (also documented is that this tiny one was female) has so much hair. However, medical opinion suggests that, given the size of the forceps compared to the head it is extremely unlikely this is the head of a third trimester baby. Now I’m not a doctor or a scientist but, ignoring my clerical collar, I’m probably representative of the kind of young woman that those folk at Foundation for Life were aiming to reach with the sickening postcard of this tiny dismembered head.

The image undoubtedly tells a story about the gruesome reality of abortion but these kinds of pictures and associated websites also tell another story – about the people who promulgate them. Tracing this particular postcard back to its organisation I came across an American website called Abortion Truth. At first glance its homepage appeared more like some homemade teenage Dracula-fest website.

The page is animated, so that blood appears to be pouring down the page and features anomalous ghoulish chains. The “abortion truth”, it seems, just isn’t bad enough without na├»ve horror graphics. The site presents not only disturbing pictures of abortion remains, but an equally discomforting idea of what pro-lifers are like.

These shock tactics suggest some anti-abortion campaigners are more interested in exploiting the gore than engaging in a debate on a moral, scientific or medical level. The fact is that the argument against abortion doesn’t rest on the distressing aftermath of the procedure. Pro-lifers don’t disagree with abortion because of what it looks like but because of what it does. Terminating human life is morally abhorrent. If we follow the arguments put forward by those who parade shock photos of 24-week old aborted remains then what are people to conclude? That abortion at seven weeks is OK because it doesn’t look as bad?

Reliance on these photographs risks undermining the attempt to win over public opinion – not just because of the potentially disreputable association it creates around anti-abortion campaigners. It is only part of the argument and it is naive to think that the issue can be solved by producing ever more gruesome evidence of late abortions in order to shock and frighten women. It is like trying to answer someone’s question in a different language: the message simply won’t get through.

In an increasingly visual culture photographs are necessary but it is vital that they are used with an appropriate moral and medical purpose within the debate. They need to ensure recognition of a reality that would otherwise be too easy to hide under clinical terminology, rather than functioning as an indiscriminate broadcast which pays little heed to the particularities of the current debate. Thrusting a pamphlet displaying a series of dismembered baby’s body parts into people’s hands as they walk down the high street is more likely to rankle than recruit a new campaigner to the cause. Why? Because being invaded with these kind of photographs leaves us with a sense that we have been exploited. It is easy for the undecided to perceive hysteria in the random and gratuitous broadcast of bloody images – the man featured in the programme “My Foetus” who drives his lorry around with photos of aborted babies emblazoned on every side springs to mind.

At the moment the debate in the United Kingdom is focused on gestational age limits for abortion. Twelve weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks, birth: it is easy for numbers of weeks to be bandied around without the public being any the wiser about what this looks like in terms of physical development. This is the question that is being asked in the public domain and abortion photographs are an important and rational expression of the scientific and medical facts. Used judiciously, as a response to the moral discomfort over late abortion, photographs can tell the truth.

Moreover, in the case of Professor Stuart Campbell’s 3D ultrasound images, the photographs partly led to moral questions over late abortion being raised in the first place. Possibly because there was no underlying sense of a shock-tactic agenda these photographs have become a powerful force in changing public opinion about abortion. Perhaps it is their joyful beauty and the wonder they evoke, but their subsequent use within a Philips advertising campaign further shows how the truth speaks for itself.
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The pro-life movement has no need to resort to hideous and gratuitously shocking images to make its point. That’s because the argument is not about how bloody or baby-like the unborn is when it is sucked from the womb, it is the fact that we as a country sanction the practice of killing a mother’s offspring within her womb at all.

The Rev Joanna Jepson is vicar of St Peter’s, in Fulham, west London

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Pope Leo XIII's Prayer to St Michael

Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust down to Hell Satan, and all wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen