[For pro-choice month on Feminist Fire]

Many people seeking to advance the cause of the unborn use grisly pictures of aborted foetuses as a way of shocking the viewer into seeing the humanity of the child, as a way of stirring their pity. I won’t post any of these pictures on this blog, for reasons which will become clear, but you can find some easily enough if you do a Google image search on “aborted foetus” or “aborted fetus”.

People who adopt this tactic say that it is a legitimate way of calling their fellow citizens to act against abortion, to stop the killing. They say that it is as legitimate as showing images of human suffering in other contexts: prisoners in a concentration camp, starving famine victims, the dead bodies of children killed in war.

I think this is problematic, for a number of reasons.

First, I am not convinced that showing human suffering actually does have the same effect today that it might have had 20 or 50 years ago. People have seen too much violence, too much suffering, too many grisly pictures. Need proof? Just consider the fact that people with spare money in their bank account can sit tight and not reach for their credit card even when faced with an image of a child with a distended belly, too listless with hunger and disease even to flick away the flies that crawl over her eyes. Showing these pictures just doesn’t shock people any more, not enough to jolt them out of complacency and into action. It doesn’t work.

Second, I don’t think the analogy between abortion and slavery, the Holocaust, war or other large-scale death projects is a valid one. The most obvious reason is that I don’t agree that a foetus is a person, unlike the people suffering and dying in famines and genocides – a critical distinction. A fairer analogy might be with pictures of what goes on in abattoirs or animal research labs – but even then the useful images are an effort to depict and communicate suffering and not just to show a bloodied corpse where suffering is, at best, inferred.

Third, I think there is at least a question about human dignity here. If that dead foetus really is a human being, shouldn’t we respect its human right to privacy? Its right not to have images of its corpse spread over trucks and across the internet? We have codes of respect in place that prevent us from publishing images of dead people: if that foetus really is a person, shouldn’t those codes apply?

Those who support the use of aborted foetus pictures to oppose abortion might brush all those things aside (especially the middle one, because such people normally do believe as a matter of faith that the foetus is a fully realised human person and would probably find despicable any analogy with mere animal suffering). They are acting for the greater good, they say. Does it matter if the pictures only influence a few people? What does it matter if we violate a foetal right of privacy if what we are doing is calling attention to a much greater violation of the foetal right to life?

Why does it matter? What harm is in it?

As I’ve said, I don’t personally believe that a foetus is a person, which means that while I agree that it is a living thing deserving of respect and dignity I won’t be addressing any question about the violation of foetal rights that may be involved in the public display of foetal corpses*. I am thinking in this post about the harm these pictures do to the general public that have to see them.

(* Although anyone who does have a different view of foetal personhood might do well to address this before they start defending the grisly picture “argument”.)

Many people are likely to be shocked and offended by these pictures. That in itself is no reason to complain about the ethics of using them. But some people, especially women who have had or are about to have abortions, are likely to suffer something more. Imagine a woman, grieving and perhaps traumatised, unable to articulate her sense of loss, or to think clearly about what she has lost or why she feels such extreme distress. Imagine that woman faced with an image of a dead foetus – imagine her tying that image in with her grief and her sense of loss – imagine her going through a process over years of mortification, guilt, self-blame, confusion, breakdown. Thinking and imagining for years about the “person” she has killed.

I am not saying that we should refrain from arguing about whether a foetus is a person just because it might make women who have had abortions feel guilty.

What I’m saying is that as we conduct the debate we should try to be sensitive to the emotional and other harm that we might cause. We should be compassionate (even to babykillers – Jesus would have been). Furthering the case against abortion by showing emotive and grisly pictures to people who might find them triggering, to people who might be vulnerable to emotional harm from them, is just cruel.

Got to be cruel to be kind, you say? That might be a tempting refuge, if you could show that the cruelty does actually result in some greater good. Can you show that grisly pictures actually do save unborn babies? Can you show that grisly pictures actually do convert waverers to anti-abortion activism? No, I thought not.

Cruelty to vulnerable women in the unsubstantiated hope that this might eventually contribute to a chain of events which might eventually reduce some types of human suffering (but not hers), is not kindness. It just isn’t. It is cruelty.