Within the first few minute of his primetime interview on NBC, former president George W. Bush seemed to have already startled Matt Lauer. President Bush recounted that after his mother Barbara miscarried a child, she showed the infant to her teenage son. “Here’s the fetus,” Mr. Bush recalled her saying. While the more squeamish might recoil at that story, Mr. Bush said that it had affected him profoundly, and began his journey to understanding the sanctity of life inside the womb. It also led to his political stance against abortion. “There’s no question that it affected me,” he told Mr. Lauer. (Mrs. Bush had given her son permission to use the story in his newly published memoir Decision Points.)
Mr. Bush's anecdote points to a perennial question for Catholics (anyone really) committed to ending abortion. How graphic should you get? Or, more accurately put: Do graphic images advance the pro-life cause? Rare is the adult Catholic who has not seen a photo of an aborted fetus as part of a pro-life mailing, or on a placard during a pro-life rally. But is it an effective strategy for winning over converts?
Some argue that the more reality, the better: those who favor abortion should see whose life they would permit ending. Similar arguments are made by those opposed to the death penalty: execution should be televised, some say, to show the public what is being done in their name. On the other hand, some argue that graphic images, like images of aborted fetuses, simply disgust the person who may not have made up her (or his) mind about abortion. Revulsion over such strong tactics may harden into opposition to the movement that adopts these strategies. In other words, it can backfire.
One can question the wisdom of a mother, even one grieving the terrible loss of a child, showing her teenage son a fetus in a jar. But as President Bush has demonstrated, reality does have the capacity to move hearts.
As someone in the pro-life camp myself, I am conflicted about the use of graphic images, and am curious to know what others might think. Do such images effect conversion or harden opposition to the pro-life cause? Obviously, it depends on the individual: i.e., what moved George Bush might have the opposite effect on someone else. What do you think it does overall?
James Martin, SJ