On Dead-Fetus Pictures & The Pitfalls Of ActivismS

Graphic images of aborted fetuses have become central to the anti-abortion message. Saturday's Times explored where these images come from, and what they say about not only the anti-abortion movement, but about activism in general.

In Damien Cave's profile of three antiabortion activists, one key line stands out. It's a favorite maxim of James Pouillon, the protester who was killed in front of Owosso High School last month. "It's all about the eyes," he said, "It's all about the eyes." And it was, apparently, Pouillon's signs depicting aborted fetuses that made Harlan Drake angry enough to kill him. These signs are also a fixture in abortion clinic protests around the country — but it wasn't always so.

According to Cave, it used to be all about the arms. Then came the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, which barred protesters from using "force, threat of force or physical obstruction" to keep women from getting abortions. Anti-abortion activists had to turn to other tactics, and that's when the anti-choice shock sign was born. Protester Chet Gallagher says all people, including kids, need to see his signs. He tells Cave, "I know I offend a lot of people. But I've talked to mothers who said, ‘Because you were there with those signs I decided to have that baby.'"

Not everyone agrees. Monica Migliorino Miller is a theology professor who has taken many iconic images (that's one of her less graphic ones above) of what she says are aborted fetuses. However, she no longer approves of displaying gory pictures, and doesn't think they should be aimed at kids because "they can't intellectualize what they're seeing."

Then there's the issue of what the photos actually show. Miller says she has retrieved many of the fetuses she photographs from loading docks and dumpsters. She doesn't mention whether or not she found medical records along with them, but it seems difficult to determine the exact details of their abortions, or what the remains actually looked like before they were discarded. Especially problematic is the case of "Malachi," an iconic aborted fetus not photographed by Miller. Activist Rhonda Mackey reportedly found "Malachi" frozen in a jar along with other fetuses. The jar was then stored without freezing for a month. Then a doctor apparently reconstructed "Malachi" so the fetus could be photographed. As Cave points out, it's not clear whether all the parts in the photo are from the same fetus, or whether apparent damage to the fetus was caused by a medical procedure or by decomposition during storage, or even whether the fetus was the result of an abortion on a miscarriage.

Jason Anderson, son of anti-abortion activist Deborah Anderson, praises his mother's use of graphic images thus: "She's really trying to open up people's minds to the horrific nature of this." And clearly the signs are more about horror than about information. Anderson may couch his mother's work in terms of "opening up people's minds," but photos like "Malachi" — provenance uncertain, informational content low — are more about turning people's stomachs. The stated goal, of course, is to win people over to the anti-abortion cause. But failing that, protesters might be satisfied with anger.

A fascinating throughline in Cave's piece is the implication that antiabortion activism is really as much about the battle as it is about the message. Of protester Dan Brewer, he writes:

He said there was something rebellious, something American, about standing up against abortion. In the past, he had occasionally held signs with bible verses emphasizing love, but they did not lead to as many conversations.

Or conflicts - like the time a man drove up on the sidewalk, running over Mr. Brewer's sign and forcing him to jump out of the way, he said.

Cave says the protesters he talked to "have endured insults, threats and even estrangement from their families because they have found what nearly every activist craves: conviction, camaraderie and conflict." Clearly men and women like Brewer and Anderson believe in what they do, but they're also energized by the feeling of rebellion, of standing against something. For Cave to identify this as a feature of all activism is either a courageous stand or kind of a copout. It's a copout in that it allows Cave to maintain some semblance of journalistic objectivity by refraining from criticizing his subjects directly — even though you sense he kind of wants to. This kind of hedging makes sense in a newspaper, but the idea that everybody's activism is just the same as everybody else's eventually leads into a relativistic morass. On the other hand, it's true that anybody who's ever, say, written a feminist blog post is familiar with the thrill of standing against. I think of myself as one of the world's most non-confrontational people, but even I've written some headlines that are close to dead-fetus images in their inflammatory intent. And so while Cave's generalization lets off the hook some people who probably shouldn't be let off, it also invites all of us professional and amateur opinion-holders to check ourselves. Which, at least in my case, is probably warranted.

Image via NYT.

Abortion Foes Tell Of Their Journey To The Streets [NYT]
Behind the Scenes: Picturing Fetal Remains [NYT]
The Foot Soldiers [NYT]