In July, an activist group called the Center for Medical Progress began to release a series of undercover videos meant to “expose” Planned Parenthood. Most of the attention to the videos has focused on whether they prove the organization engaged in illegal sales of fetal-tissue harvesting. So far, despite multiple state investigations and four congressional hearings, they have not proved that. But the videos’ real aim seems to be prompting a purely visceral reaction among the public.
This is a tactic that some anti-abortion activists have been using for years in a more low-tech form: displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses in public places. This aggressive approach is extraordinarily unpopular outside activist circles for obvious reasons. And even within the anti-abortion community, it is sometimes viewed as an extreme tactic. In September, the president of the large anti-abortion organization Students for Life of America, Kristan Hawkins, wrote a column for the conservative website Townhall in which she compared the use of such images to screaming outside an abortion clinic, and questioned their relevance. (She did not condemn their use altogether.)
But overall, despite the revulsion it provokes, the tactic seems to be becoming more common within the anti-abortion community. Organizations including the Anti-Choice Project, Show the Truth, the Center for Bioethical Reform, and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust now make such displays a significant part of their activism.
The Pro-Life Action League, an Illinois anti-abortion organization, is part of that trend. Founded in 1980, the group began holding events it calls Face the Truth tours in 2000, in which volunteers station themselves at major intersections holding large signs featuring photographs of aborted fetuses. At a typical event, volunteers stand at least 20 feet apart from each other along all four prongs of an intersection, to make sure that no drivers can escape from viewing them.
The group’s executive director, Eric Scheidler, describes this strategy as “bringing those pictures to the public square.” The Pro-Life Action League was founded by Scheidler’s parents, and he grew up going to protests with them. He is now a father of eight, and a measured, matter-of-fact defender of employing these gruesome images as part of his activism, which also includes more targeted protests, educational materials, and “sidewalk counseling” outside of abortion clinics. Recently, Scheidler agreed to speak with me about his organization’s use of what he calls “abortion-victim photography.” The interview has been edited for space.
Ruth Graham: Do you believe that these large, disturbing photographs are effective in changing people’s minds about abortion?
Eric Scheidler: We have lots of anecdotal evidence that they’re very effective. The most powerful evidence is when someone comes up to you and says—and we’ve had this experience again and again—“Thank you for being here, I passed by here three years ago, I now have a two-year old son, the love of my life, because I canceled my abortion appointment when I passed by your display.”
Very often people are shocked to see what abortion really is. One of the criticisms leveled at what we’re doing is that everybody already knows this, why do we think people are so ignorant. We’ve been out there and we’ve seen their responses. When people see these pictures they ask, “Is that really what abortion looks like? Is that really what it is?" Yeah, it is. “Why, I had no idea. That’s gotta stop.”
Graham: I’m sure you get negative reactions, too.
Scheidler: People do react negatively, too, sometimes violently. Just this past summer, somebody on a bicycle sped past one of our signs in downtown Chicago and splashed it with oil paint. This guy got oil paint all over his face...
We’re not there to make people angry. But people do respond in anger. And I think the reason for that is that the abortion issue makes people very, very uncomfortable, as it should. I mean, it’s an uncomfortable thing. It’s a horrible injustice taking place, an injustice with which people are often complicit in one way or another ... Most people know someone who’s had an abortion, have been involved in an abortion decision themselves, have had an abortion, have paid for an abortion, have encouraged someone to get an abortion, or just failed to talk someone out of an abortion when they had a chance to.
So there’s a sense of responsibility we feel for it that’s quite different from other types of injustice. When you see a picture of a starving child, it moves you but it doesn’t make you angry. When you see a picture—even a graphically violent picture like a beheaded victim of ISIS, it makes you angry, but not at the person showing you the image. It makes you angry at the injustice. But abortion pictures seem to elicit an anger at those who are holding the signs...
So we get those reactions as well. But that’s okay. We’re not there to do PR for the pro-life movement.
Graham: Do you get any pushback from other parts of that movement? I know some activists try to distance themselves from this particular tactic.
Scheidler: There is some controversy surrounding it, but those of us who are using the images have seen the impact of them. We do try to appeal to other profile leaders to be a little more open-minded about it.
There’s a kind of closed-mindedness about these pictures, especially in the world today. Today we put such a premium on getting along. No one wants to offend anybody, and in a lot of ways that’s good. We should seek not to offend others, we should seek to have peaceable relations with one another. But sometimes I think that’s at the cost of showing the reality of these things.
I understand people’s discomfort with the images. I get it. They make me uncomfortable. How couldn't they? But if you asked me to stop showing the pictures, I feel like morally I can’t do that.
Graham: Where do the actual photos come from?
Scheidler: Many of them have been taken by a woman named Monica Miller. Monica has been a pro-life activist since the 1970s, and she’s also an amateur photographer... In fact, one of the pictures we use of a first trimester abortion was taken in my childhood garage. A pro-life activist in Chicago got word from a security guard that this abortion clinic was throwing the babies’ bodies into a dumpster behind the abortion clinic on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So the pro-life activists out there, including from the Pro-Life Action League, went out, did some dumpster diving and recovered these bodies.*
Graham: How many of these images are circulating at this point?
Scheidler: I’ve tried to find every single picture I could because we’re always revisiting the question of how to make our signs more effective. There’s a difference between a picture that’s depicting a victim and really elicits a recognition of the humanity there, and one that’s more kind of gory and stomach-turning. We really try to emphasize the reality of the victim over the gore. There’s times that the less-gory images are actually much more effective and impactful. People turn away from them less quickly. So I’ve tried to find all the pictures that I can. I don’t think there’s [more than] 100.
Graham: You say you’re not just going for gore, but they are very graphic images. Do you have any qualms about showing these in public spaces where children might see them or people will be upset by them?
Scheidler: I appreciate that concern, especially the concern about children seeing the images, because children’s innocence is very important to me... I’m sensitive to that. But I’m also sensitive to the horrible injustice being done to these unborn children. You’re really asking me to weigh tears against blood...
We don’t want to see the pictures, we don’t want people to show them, so we latch on to the most obvious reason those people shouldn’t be doing that. “Oh, kids’ll see the picture, they’ll be traumatized.” I’ve never met a child who was traumatized by an abortion picture. I’ve been seeing these pictures since I was literally 6-years-old. All of my children have seen them by necessity; there’s no way I could avoid my children seeing the pictures with the work that I do...
It’s adults who are upset by the pictures because the adult sees the picture and the adult’s eyes don’t just behold something that’s scary-looking or bloody. They see abortion clinics, they see abortion law, they see Roe v. Wade, they see a sexual encounter that resulted in this phenomenon. They see sexual morality, they see the legal system, they see moral questions.
Graham: Is there a moral dimension to showing these images? I almost wonder if effectiveness is beside the point. Do you feel an obligation to confront people with the physical reality of abortion, regardless of how they respond to it?
Scheidler: I think so. We feel an obligation to show these victims. If we knew that every time we show the victims more people support abortion, we would stop doing it, but we certainly don’t know that to be the case.
Graham: Obviously a lot of people view these images as hostile. Do you think there’s a place for hostility in activism?
Scheidler: No, I don’t think hostility is ever appropriate. But I do think there’s a certain activism or zeal or boldness—I think “boldness” is the right word. It takes guts to take these picture out into the public square. It takes courage. Because of that, and because of the reactions we get from people, our attitude has to be as non-hostile as possible.
The signs themselves elicit so much emotion that those who are holding the signs need to be calm, cool, collected, peaceful, confident in their message, and able to dialogue with those who come up and want to talk, even if they’re angry. I’ve had many an encounter that started out very hostile turn completely around ... I think there’s an obligation for those who confront the public on the abortion issue—whether it’s with signs or a political campaign with petitions for a signature—a real responsibility to be open, to listen, to be patient and calm.
Graham: Do the encounters that don’t end that way, where people are just angry, does that get tiring for you?
Scheidler: It can be emotionally exhausting. But it can also be invigorating because you know you’re getting a response from people. If we go to a town with these signs and no one gives us the finger, no one stops to argue with us about it, then we kind of wonder if we had an impact that day.
Graham: Do you see the Planned Parenthood videos as an extension of your approach, really confronting people in a visceral way, not necessarily with new information but with an emotional element to the argument?
Scheidler: I see the impact these videos have had, the way they've gotten people mobilized to come out and do something active to fight abortion. They’ve even changed some people’s minds about Planned Parenthood or abortion or the law regarding abortion. It’s a real vindication of the impact of these images.
Graham: Have the videos affected the anti-abortion movement more broadly?
Scheidler: The pro-life movement has certainly gotten a huge boost from the videos. Those of us who were already involved feel like this is helping us to show the truth. More people are seeing what we’ve been seeing ... That has really inspired people to get involved in this fight. So many people are coming out, for 40 Days for Life, for these protests we’ve been organizing, asking how they can get involved, what can they do. [This is] people who were against abortion but didn’t think there was anything they can do. Now they see they’ve got to do something. So it’s having a big impact on forming a movement. I think Planned Parenthood will never really come out from under this scandal.
Graham: Beyond Planned Parenthood, are you optimistic about the broader state of the abortion debate in this country?
Scheidler: Abortion rates have been going down, and the number of pro-life laws being passed has been going up. There’s some fluctuation in whether people identify as pro-life and what their attitudes toward the issue are. We’re winning a lot of battles but I don’t think we’re going to see a radical change in the landscape of abortion quickly. It’s going to be a long, long haul.
* This article originally included a claim that images used by the Center for Bioethical Reform depict staged fetal body parts obtained directly from abortion clinics. CBR denies that this is the case, and Scheidler has clarified that he has no direct knowledge of how the pictures were obtained. We regret the error.
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