The tactics of many who engage in the anti-abortion efforts themselves can create assaults on the dignity of the human person. The most egregious are those who attack abortion doctors. However, something that is often ignored is the use of photos or videos of aborted children as a means to grab people’s attention or to “educate” them about the reality of abortion. I am forever abhorred by the “pro-lifers” who use pictures of dead children as shock value but propose it as “education.” I would argue that it is taking advantage of a person and is not only unethical but immoral.
Abortion is evil. It is the unjust killing of an innocent child. We know this to be true. Anyone who engages in the practice of abortion is committing evil (though they are not themselves “evil” because we are each created in God’s image and retain our intrinsic dignity, more on this later). Real images, pictures, videos of an abortion or the aftermath of an abortion are images of evil. We must realize that evil exists in this world, that there is such thing as evil. When a person witnesses an abortion or the images of an abortion, ie an aborted child, they are in the presence of evil, they are engaging in the battle between good and evil. It is wrong to force another person involuntarily into this battle beyond what they are already engaged in their everyday life (i.e. from temptation to sin, etc.). Anyone who is going to directly engage in battle must prepare themselves for such an endeavor. We don’t send soldiers into war without guns, ammo, armor, etc. so we should not force others into the battle against evil without proper preparation. Those who use images and videos of aborted children either for its shock value or for “education” are ignoring the fact that they have now taken that child and are no longer regarding that child as an end in themselves, but now they are using that child as a means to an end. Although the end is good, ending abortion, the means is not. We cannot denigrate the dignity of a dead child for the sake of ending abortion. Just like we can’t steal in order to donate to a charitable organization. We cannot do evil in order to do good.
That being said, there is a place for the proper use of imagery that is actual footage of an abortion or photo of an aborted child. How is this possible? Well, the closest analogy to the use of pictures of aborted children would be the use of human bodies in medical research or in educational hospitals to teach future doctors about internal medicine. The dead are not used solely as a means to an end if they are properly respected, such is the way with the aborted child.
1st, we must remember that viewing such images is a direct engagement in evil and therefore, using our analogy of battle, we must prepare ourselves and others for such a battle. A person needs to be told what they will see in advance. Prayer is also necessary in preparation, bringing God’s presence into that battle is a solid foundation from which to gain the strength to engage in the battle against the evil of abortion. There must also be a means to debrief or process what those gathered have just witnessed. To share their emotional reaction, to know that they are safe and have a support system to rely on. And, once again, prayer to bring God’s presence to the forefront.
2nd. Like any war in the United States, we have a volunteer army. A person should rightfully have the choice to view those images or not and should be given the opportunity to give consent. I have had people tell me that they have the choice to look or not, this is not what I mean. A person must be given fair notice of what is to be seen and then be allowed to continue or not. They should not be drafted or conscripted into this battle with evil.
Some would ask “why not? Evil exists; it is wrong to ignore it or try to make it ‘nice’ for people.” Again, we do not put people who have stage 4 cancer on the front lines of a war, why would we force people who are spiritually weak, whether from sin, or, in the case of someone suffering from tragedy, to see and in doing so engage in the battle that is not safe for them to participate in?
Ultimately, it is an abuse of the child that has been aborted to use them as a means and not see them as an end in themselves. Their life was sacred, and as Catholics, our souls are embodied. We are not just ghosts in a machine, but rather, our body and soul are uniquely connected to one another. This is why we have funeral services and prohibit cremated remains to be “spread to the wind” or “released into a river”. Our body has dignity specifically because it is joined to our soul and therefore deserves dignified respect even after the soul has gone from it. It is not a “pro-life” action to use pictures of aborted children as propaganda, it demeans the sanctity of life, it denies the intrinsic dignity of the child that was murdered and it is morally unjustifiable.
It may be asked, “how is the picture equivalent to the child itself? Isn’t it only inappropriate to use the actual aborted child instead of the pictures?” The aborted child is not the exact same as a picture of the aborted child. I would draw your attention to Bl. John Paul II’s theology of the body, and although it is not considered to be the same level of magisterial authority as a conciliar document or encyclical, I think the application of JPII’s discussion of sex and art is readily applicable to the use of imagery of a human person who has been aborted.
“Value of body in interpersonal communion
3. In this case, it is evident that the deep governing rule related to the communion of persons is in profound agreement with the vast and differentiated area of communication. The human body in its nakedness—as we stated in the preceding analyses (in which we referred to Genesis 2:25)—understood as a manifestation of the person and as his gift, that is, a sign of trust and donation to the other person, who is conscious of the gift, and who is chosen and resolved to respond to it in an equally personal way, becomes the source of a particular interpersonal communication.
As has already been said, this is a particular communication in humanity itself. That interpersonal communication penetrates deeply into the system of communion (communio personarum), and at the same time it grows from it and develops correctly within it. Precisely because of the great value of the body in this system of interpersonal communion, to make the body in its nakedness—which expresses precisely “the element” of the gift—the object-subject of the work of art or of the audiovisual reproduction, is a problem which is not only aesthetic, but also ethical. That “element of the gift” is, so to speak, suspended in the dimension of an unknown reception and an unforeseen response. Thereby it is in a way threatened in the order of intention, in the sense that it may become an anonymous object of appropriation, an object of abuse. Precisely for this reason the integral truth about man constitutes in this case the foundation of the norm according to which the good or evil of determined actions, of behavior, of morals and situations, is modeled. The truth about man, about what is particularly personal and interior in him—precisely because of his body and his sex (femininity-masculinity)—creates here precise limits which it is unlawful to exceed.”
4. These limits must be recognized and observed by the artist who makes the human body the object, model or subject of the work of art or of the audiovisual reproduction. Neither he nor others who are responsible in this field have the right to demand, propose or bring it about that other people, invited, exhorted or admitted to see, to contemplate the image, should violate those limits together with them, or because of them. It is a question of the image, in which that which in itself constitutes the content and the deeply personal value, that which belongs to the order of the gift and of the mutual donation of person to person, is, as a subject, uprooted from its own authentic substratum. It becomes, through social communication, an object and what is more, in a way, an anonymous object.
As can be seen from what is said above, the whole problem of pornovision and pornography is not the effect of a puritanical mentality or of a narrow moralism, just as it is not the product of a thought imbued with Manichaeism. It is a question of an extremely important, fundamental sphere of values. Before it, man cannot remain indifferent because of the dignity of humanity, the personal character and the eloquence of the human body. By means of works of art and the activity of the audiovisual media, all those contents and values can be modeled and studied. But they can also be distorted and destroyed in the heart of man. As can be seen, we find ourselves continually within the orbit of the words Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount. Also the problems which we are dealing with here must be examined in the light of those words, which consider a look that springs from lust as “adultery committed in the heart.”
It is clear that JPII is addressing the communal nature of the conjugal act. Where the connection can be made between pornography and a picture or video of an aborted fetus is here:
“Neither he nor others who are responsible in this field have the right to demand, propose or bring it about that other people, invited, exhorted or admitted to see, to contemplate the image, should violate those limits together with them, or because of them. It is a question of the image, in which that which in itself constitutes the content and the deeply personal value, that which belongs to the order of the gift and of the mutual donation of person to person, is, as a subject, uprooted from its own authentic substratum. It becomes, through social communication, an object and what is more, in a way, an anonymous object.”
The abuse of an image of a person lends itself to treating the subject (the aborted child) as an “anonymous object” in a similar way as the abuse of the image of a nude person does.
However, John Paul II does not outright prohibit the nude body in art, and, as we can see in artwork in the Vatican museum, such art is prominently displayed. If this is the case with the nude form then there are instances in which the representation of an aborted child can be legitimately used as long as it is not treated as an object, desensitizing us to the reality that is being depicted. Considering the example of modern journalism, particularly cable news, is an effective analogy and connection to what I am speaking. We can easily recognize this when the depiction of war, famine, etc. is being consumed for profit, for pleasure, rather than for education and understanding. Take your pick of any cable news channel, MSNBC, CNN, Foxnews, each one of these stations constantly crosses the line with regard to their use of video footage of atrocities and packages them to be no different than the latest episode of the Jersey Shore. Whereas, the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, or the Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, use footage to help people understand the atrocities that have occurred in our history in order to prevent them from occurring in the future.
It is possible to depict an evil act in a morally justifiable way, your example of the crucifix is one clear example of this. But we must be careful how we approach such depictions, particularly when they are not religious sacramentals or devotions but rather temporal realities that we seek to display for other’s consumption. Dramatic representation of the stations of the cross is different than gathering around together to watch an execution, particularly for entertainment purposes.
Perhaps it would be possible to make a model of a hypothetical aborted child? The model of an aborted child being made, and then a picture being taken of it, and then being displayed is different from an actual photograph of an aborted child but again, we must be careful with how we display it, the intent for displaying it, because it still risks objectifying the subject from which it was based upon.
I ask those who wish to end abortion consider their tactics so as not to objectify the murdered unborn child or to risk opening others up to attacks from the Evil one by foisting those images upon persons unprepared to receive them. There are better ways to convince people that abortion is wrong. Emotional disgust that these images bring about will only move a person so far to act to end abortion. We must rely on scientific and rational arguments and not sensationalism and emotionalism.