Abortion Images: A Case for Disagreement without Division

We at Equal Rights Institute hardly ever talk publicly about the topic of abortion images. This isn’t because we don’t have opinions; it’s because there is almost no other topic that is as effective at dividing well-intentioned pro-life advocates. But saying nothing at all can also create division of a different sort. I’ll give an analogy.

I’m not Catholic, so discussing Catholic theology with my Catholic friends is risky. When I lived in Wichita, I became good friends with three Catholics named Rebecca, Catherine, and Anthony, and we talked about theology a great deal. We argued, wrestled, and disagreed, but we became closer friends as a result, and I think we all benefited from those conversations.

I’m also not a Calvinist. Some people say “it’s not worth Christians dividing over questions about free will and predestination.” I agree that it’s not worth dividing, but it is worth discussing, and I’m much closer with my Calvinist friends like Jacob and Brit because we can talk about controversial issues in a respectful way. But if after having one of those conversations, we couldn’t pray together because we were upset with each other, something seriously wrong happened.

My hope is that this post will bring us into closer fellowship with our pro-life friends. I will be very sad indeed if this post means there are fewer people I can pray with. I hope the discussions that follow from this post will be charitable. I hope people from both sides of the debate will be charitable to each other, and part of charity is taking people at their word, and not making assumptions about what their “real” motivation is.[Tweet that]

There is a great deal of disagreement in the pro-life movement about how to use abortion images. There are some that think they should be used more often than we do, and some that think they should be used less often than we do. I don’t think either side is immoral, and I don’t think either side is stupid. I think there is a great deal of important work being done in the pro-life movement by people that publicly put up abortion images, and a great deal of important work being done in the pro-life movement by people that never use abortion images at all. We have strategic disagreements that are worth talking about in a spirit of humility for the sake of the unborn we are all working to save.

There is even some level of respectful disagreement on our staff. We currently have three full-time staff and three different opinions about some difficult specific cases. That’s okay. Here’s what we at ERI agree on:

  1. Sometimes abortion images save lives.
  2. Sometimes the most helpful thing for a given person is to see what abortion looks like. (Everyone on ERI’s staff has experienced cases like these first-hand. We have all seen minds change on abortion that we believe would not have if they had not seen abortion images.)
  3. Sometimes abortion images turn people off and shut down opportunities for productive dialogue.
  4. Sometimes the most helpful thing for a given person at a given time is something other than seeing an abortion image.
  5. Therefore, when and how to use abortion images is a complicated question that requires careful strategic thinking.
  6. It is not necessarily immoral to show someone an abortion image without their consent (in a given case, a person could be sinning based on their heart state).
  7. It is not necessarily immoral to not show someone an abortion image without their consent (in a given case, a person could be sinning based on their heart state, for instance, it could be that they are convicted that they need to do something difficult and they could decide not to out of fear).
  8. Therefore, the disagreement about abortion images ought to be one about pragmatics. What is the most effective method of persuasion?
  9. Generally speaking, people are more open to genuinely considering the impact of an abortion image if they agree to look at it than if it is shown to them without their consent.
  10. Sometimes if you show a pro-choice person an abortion image without their consent, they will categorize you as a mean person and stop listening to you, or assume the abortion image is not accurate.
  11. Therefore, generally speaking, you are more likely to persuade a pro-choice person in a one-on-one conversation with an abortion image if they agree to see it.

We don’t put abortion images on signs at our events. We do show them in our training seminar and in presentations, with a warning. We also have them in our outreach brochure, including a brutal 20-week abortion image that is more graphic than any image I’ve seen almost any other pro-life group use. (Click here to see it. Warning: It is very graphic.) But we show these pictures to people only if they agree to see them.


We think many people can’t actually change their minds unless they feel emotionally safe to change their minds, so we are very intentional about creating an emotionally safe environment. We’ll push people hard with arguments, and even with images, but we build rapport with the person first. We don’t mind being offensive, but we’re strategic about how and when we are offensive. We want the offense to make an impact other than ending the conversation.

Personally, I rarely show abortion images in the first twenty minutes of a conversation, but I usually bring them up sometime in the first forty minutes of a conversation. Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes I don’t bring them up at all. My colleague Jacob Nels usually brings them into his conversations, and usually around ten minutes in. Our styles are a little different, and I tend to err on the side of building more rapport first, but we don’t have hard and fast rules about it. Every conversation is a series of difficult judgment calls amidst prayer without ceasing. But if the pictures are on a sign behind me, I can’t make that judgment call.


Kristan Hawkins from Students for Life of America posted her own thoughts last week at Townhall.com. We basically agree with her assessment. She is arguing that:

There are certain times when abortion victims must be shown.

But it’s not all the time.

We agree. When they must be shown is a subject of disagreement even in the ERI office. But we all agree it isn’t all the time.

Jacob Nels talks to a student at CSUB.

Kristan describes a difference between the current generation of college students and previous generations saying:

And with a generation that has grown up with moral relativism as the philosophy de jour, reaching people with the plain facts just doesn’t cut it anymore. Students have told me: “Well, your truth isn’t always my truth.” You can’t show people graphic images and expect their views and behaviors to change. Their hearts have to be ready to accept it.

As I said earlier, everyone at ERI has experienced seeing minds change about abortion primarily because of the abortion images. But we live in a different world than we did twenty years ago. It’s much easier to fake images than it used to be, which makes it easy for many students to write off the images as the frauds they want them to be. It’s fairly easy to respond to a skeptic who believes the images are photoshopped, but we don’t get that opportunity when so many of the students who see the images don’t stop and talk to us, and instead storm off in anger. (And, to be clear, it isn’t the fact that the student is angry that bothers us. We deal with angry students all the time. It’s the fact that they won’t talk to us because of the false assumption he or she makes about the people around the abortion images.)


There’s also a growing phenomenon of students thinking they shouldn’t have to deal with emotionally sensitive topics on their campus (which is stupid). The Atlantic ran an excellent piece this month describing this trend. The entire article is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt:

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”

Then you had this recent story from Oregon:

A student at a liberal-arts school in Oregon was reportedly banned from going anywhere on campus that a fellow student would be — because he looked like the person who had raped her.

Professor Janet Halley wrote in a piece for Harvard Law Review that she had “recently assisted” a student who had been “ordered to stay away from a fellow student (cutting him off from his housing, his campus job, and educational opportunity) — all because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away.”

Those aren’t just isolated cases either. Some standup comedians won’t even do shows on college campuses anymore because students are so easily offended, a topic that The Atlantic ran a separate article on this month.

What’s the point? I believe this means that fewer of today’s college students will stop and engage us in spite of being offended by the pictures than they did 20 years ago. Instead, they will merely and unreasonably become angry with the pro-life people for the perceived “microaggression” and storm off, perhaps less willing to talk to pro-life people in the future.

So while there are some pro-choice students that can be reached with abortion images, there are other students that will not be reached merely with images. These students need a personal conversation that starts in an environment that feels safe and fair to both sides. By not putting up public abortion images, we get to some students we wouldn’t have otherwise, and miss some students who could have just been persuaded by the images. It’s okay for different pro-life groups to do different things. If we all used public images, then no one would reach the kind of student that needs an environment that feels safe to them.

We particularly like Kristan’s conclusion:

When our team is out on campuses this fall, starting and training hundreds of Students for Life groups, the images will be a tool in our toolkit, just like these CMP videos. However, the real culture change, the one that must take place in order for us to transform our culture to reject abortion, will happen through personal conversations and relationships. That’s our strategy.

We are in complete agreement with Kristan that the most important cultural transformation is going to take place in personal conversations and relationships. I’ve changed my mind about really significant things in the past. Maybe one day Rebecca will convince me of Catholicism, or Jacob will convince me of Calvinism. But a change like that is much more likely to happen in the context of personal relationships. Maybe one of my pro-life friends will change my mind on when and how to use abortion images, but that change is more likely to take place in the context of personal relationships. People typically need to feel emotionally safe to actually change their mind about something, and they will also have a lot of questions that need answers if they’re going to change their mind about something they’ve already thought a lot about. The context of friendship is perfect for this. A person can have multiple, maybe even dozens of meetings with their friend who they consider a trusted source, in an emotionally safe environment that fosters open-mindedness.

This focus on personal relationships is the main reason why we don’t show graphic abortion pictures without consent. If our mission was showing abortion to as many people as possible, we’d put up abortion images in public. Many more people would see them that way than just the people we and our volunteers talk to. But our mission is training pro-life advocates to learn how to dialogue with their friends and family in a way that is gracious and persuasive. In order to end abortion, we need to persuade a lot of people. The people we train won’t have giant abortion images behind them when they have those private everyday conversations, so we aren’t training them to use giant abortion images at our outreaches. Rather, we train them to use small abortion images in a brochure. Some pro-life people like our mission, others don’t. But given what our mission is, keeping the images in a brochure is the best strategy for us. We don’t mind that other pro-life groups have a different mission with a different strategy.


We urge everyone, be willing to discuss pro-life strategy, but 1) don’t strawman people who disagree with you (i.e. don’t assume your pro-life friends that don’t use abortion images are just afraid of offending people; and don’t assume your pro-life friends that use abortion images all the time aren’t loving), and 2) discuss without being disrespectful or divisiveWe’re on the same team.

We love and respect our friends that use abortion images differently than we do, and we deeply appreciate their efforts to save the unborn.


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The post “Abortion Images: A Case for Disagreement without Division” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blogClick here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”

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Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • We also have them in our outreach brochure, including a brutal 20-week abortion image that is more graphic than any image I’ve seen almost any other pro-life group use. (Click here to see it. Warning: It is very graphic.)

    I thought “Surely I’ve seen it before,” so did not heed the warning to prepare my mind. Wow. I would like to borrow it for one website. Am I free to do so, and can you provide the documentation as to its authenticity?

    There’s also a growing phenomenon of students thinking they shouldn’t have to deal with emotionally sensitive topics on their campus (which is stupid).

    Or is using their intelligence in service of a cause that they committed themselves to because of some emotional payoff. Is there any correlation at all between intelligence and objectivity?

    • We received permission to use the abortion images that are in our brochure from Created Equal, who were very generous to us. I don’t own the rights to the images, thus can’t transfer that to someone else. You could feel free to reach out to them though.

      We know quite a bit about the circumstances behind the taking of the abortion images we use, and are very comfortable with their authenticity. Here’s a signed statement from the abortion photographer: http://www.createdequal.org/files/authenticity_pixelated.jpg

      I’m not aware of any studies on the correlation (or lack thereof) between intelligence and objectivity.

  • kap65

    Excellent post. I especially appreciate the point that images can be faked so easily; no wonder many people are skeptical. I generally believe the movement should use images more often…but definitely not always and not in all settings. It definitely requires wisdom and discernment…and boatloads of love.

  • Guest

    Very insightful commentary. I enjoyed the article Kristan Hawkins wrote as well. However, I disagree with her argument that the first two videos were effective despite lacking any graphic images. While they’re certainly horrifying and show that Planned Parenthood is likely breaking several laws, they’re not remotely on the same level as the last scene of the fourth one. Hearing Deb Nucatola, Warren Hern, or Anthony Levatino describe late-term abortion is not at all comparable to watching Planned Parenthood staff pick through the remains of a little boy that will never see the light of day or be given a name. That terrible scene conveys the truth, that these are human beings (1) and this is not how any civilized society ought to treat human beings (2), in a potent way that the first few videos cannot. I think that on this website we have a tendency to treat the abortion issue like a mathematical problem, reducing it to abstract philosophical concepts like bodily autonomy and “de facto guardians” and the metaphysics of personhood. The video serves as a reminder that we’re really talking about killing little boys and little girls – a point that we often lose track of.

    That being said, Hawkins’ other points were good. The video was powerful because it actually shows what goes on inside an abortion clinic (rather than just displaying the body), and because the audience knows right from the beginning what they’re about to see. I’d like to contrast the CMP videos with the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform’s latest campaign (which, if you’re not aware, involves going door to door and placing postcards with a picture of Justin Trudeau’s face next to a picture of an abortion victim in every mailbox). The CMP videos are a game-changer, even with the muted media coverage: every presidential candidate has weighed in on them, public support for Planned Parenthood is declining, moderate pro-choice columnists are seriously reconsidering their positions, and many of Planned Parenthood’s most powerful political allies are distancing themselves from it (even though they ultimately find a way to rationalize funding the organization with tax money to the tune of $1M+ per day). CCBR’s campaign, on the other hand, only seems to have angered parents of young children and made mail carriers uncomfortable with delivering the postcards. We don’t see the top political leaders debating the content of the postcards or promising to reform Canada’s abortion law, and most people don’t seem to have any idea what the purpose of CCBR’s campaign is. I could be completely wrong – maybe people are changing their minds, and media bias has stopped me from seeing the rest of the story, but at least intuitively CCBR’s campaign doesn’t look like it will be an effective one. I feel really bad for saying this because I know that Stephanie Gray, Alissa Golob, and others working with CCBR are nice people who have done far more for the unborn than I have, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for them (especially since Canada literally needs all the help it can possibly get).

    I also like how you acknowledge that different people need different approaches, so you embrace pro-life groups that use different strategies than yours. There are some people that ERI won’t be able to reach, because they need to see a hard-hitting display before they’ll even consider talking to a pro-life activist. Conversely, there are some people that Priests for Life and Created Equal won’t be able to reach because the images scare them away.

    • Thanks for your thoughts here. Two quick thoughts to hopefully add clarity.

      I don’t think Kristan’s argument was that the first two videos were the most effective. I think her point was merely that they became viral and were really effective even though they didn’t have the graphic images in them. It’s a response to the people who use graphic pics on signs who argued that the CMP videos were “proof that the graphic picture debate is over.”

      I think that’s clearly not the case. People who clicked on those videos were in a different mindset than someone exposed to graphic images of abortion without warning. They sat down and clicked on a video about abortion, and those that do have graphic images give two warnings each, one at the beginning, and another one later before the images are shown. The viewer opts in and is in an environment that feels safe to them. It’s actually very similar to how we want to use the images.

      As far as reducing abortion to a math problem, I sure hope we don’t do that! I think it’s definitely a danger when talking about philosophy a lot. We actually say at our seminars that there is a danger when spending a lot of time speaking philosophically about abortion to unintentionally sound like we think abortion is merely a Rubik’s Cube to be solved. It’s not. Abortion is the brutal killing of an innocent baby. There was literally weeping in our office watching the CMP videos. After making the Rubik’s Cube comment though, we add this: “But if we are going to respond to the most intelligent arguments that the pro-choice side has to offer, we’re going to need to respond with more than emotional arguments and graphic pictures. We need to respond with philosophical arguments that demonstrate that our position is worth thinking about.”

      Here are a few pieces we’ve written hoping to get at how people ought to feel emotionally about this issue:



      Thanks again for your comments. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

      • there is a danger when spending a lot of time speaking philosophically about abortion to unintentionally sound like we think abortion is merely a Rubik’s Cube to be solved. It’s not. . . . There was literally weeping in our office watching the CMP videos. After making the Rubik’s Cube comment though, we add this: “But if we are going to respond to the most intelligent arguments that the pro-choice side has to offer, we’re going to need to respond with more than emotional arguments . . .”

        If I understand correctly, your distinction here is between only two factors involved in decision-making for oneself and in the persuasion of others. (The persuasion of others means influencing the decision-making of others.) The two are discursive argument / logic / rationality, and emotion.

        And one point you make is that you don’t want to sound like you have suppressed your emotions (or presumably to actually suppress your emotions). You call the possibility of doing that a danger.

        But there is another factor, which you have sometimes referred to, in decision-making on moral issues (or influencing decision-making), and that is moral intuition.

        (Distinguishing between emotion and moral intuition: Suppose that tomorrow morning I read in the news that half a million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to die of starvation within a month. And suppose that on that same morning I drop my cell phone and it breaks. I may be more upset about the cell phone than about the starvation. That upsetness is an example of emotion. But if you tell me, “Your cell phone can be saved or the half million people can be saved, you have to decide,” an inner voice will tell me that the half million people should be saved, and I will follow that voice. That voice is my moral intuition about that particular situation. And I think that in many people, that voice will often override their emotions.)

        And, along with there being another factor, I think there is another danger: believing that we can prove a moral point through discursive argument / logic / rationality* without reliance on a moral intuition that is not at all rational — that comes out of our unconscious in some way we cannot understand.

        * Or even advancing our arguments as if we could prove a moral point through discursive argument / logic / rationality, while perhaps acknowledging, as a formality, that we cannot.

        I think the danger is that our discussions will be no more productive than they normally tend to be. I think they will become more productive if we can become more aware of the limits of discursive argument / logic / rationality, and what causes those limits to exist.

        I have tried to think about the ways our discussions will be more productive at this link, in a short section called The Practical Implications.

      • Guest

        Thanks for the reply. Regarding Kristan Hawkins, I said in my previous comment that I think most of her arguments are good. I agree that the CMP videos certainly do not end the debate over abortion victim photography. That being said, however, she still seems to deny or at least downplay the significance of the thing that sets the fourth video apart from the first few (the “war-torn” corpse of the little boy, and the reactions of the Planned Parenthood staff). So I stand by my earlier assessment of the article.

        I’ve been following your work for quite a while now, and I know that you don’t actually think abortion is like a mathematics problem or a Rubik’s cube. I appreciate the honesty in the two articles you linked, and it really says a lot coming from a veteran pro-life activist. This quote pretty much describes exactly how I felt when I saw the fourth video:

        When I get upset, I have an immediate impulse to take all of my opinions with a grain of salt because I feel like I’m not in control. I’ll tell Josh “my compass is broken right now,” meaning I don’t trust my intuition, just like I wouldn’t trust a compass that I thought might not be pointing north.
        Yesterday I emotionally broke down, but for those few minutes my compass was pointing true north. I’m less emotional now, and I trust my compass less.

        At the end of the article about the OMSI exhibit, though, you write that some days you don’t feel as sadly about abortion as you ought to and that you are sometimes disconnected about how awful it is. This really sounds a lot like what I said above: unintentionally (and probably subconsciously), there is a tendency to act like the abortion issue is an abstract philosophical exercise. The blind spot is still there, even though you’re aware of it and are trying to avoid it.

        Regarding philosophical arguments, I think they’re important to a certain extent. However, they have severe limitations. As your friend Trent Horn (who is even more philosophically-minded than you are) puts it, philosophy makes people so smart that they turn into idiots. Let’s suppose that critics of the pro-life position come up with a very intelligent argument for legalized abortion that we’re unable to counter (perhaps after years or even decades of trying). Question: should we become pro-choice if that happens? I believe there are very good reasons to say that the answer is “no”. This sounds strange, but let’s look at an analogy. Zeno of Elea was a philosopher in ancient Greece who proposed that motion is impossible because in order to walk across a room, for example, you would need to first walk halfway there. Afterward, you would need to walk half the remaining distance, then half the remaining distance, and so on. Because this would add up to an infinite number of tasks, and it’s impossible to complete an infinite number of tasks, it’s impossible to walk across the room.

        The first person to challenge this argument was Diogenes of Sinope, who demonstrated that the conclusion is false simply by getting out of his seat and walking across the room. Philosophers don’t like his “rebuttal”, of course, because he didn’t actually refute any of Zeno’s premises or show why his logic is wrong. The most common strategy for countering it requires a knowledge of infinite geometric series, limits, and (if we want to be really precise) delta-epsilon proofs – the latter of which wasn’t developed until the 19th Century. Even today, there are still some philosophers that reject this argument (and other proposed solutions to Zeno’s paradoxes).

        For thousands of years, Zeno and his supporters arguably had the better argument. Some would say they still haven’t been adequately countered. Yet no serious person actually believes that motion is impossible. Walking across the room is enough to show that the conclusion is self-evidently false, and that the whole analysis is nothing more than an amusing intellectual exercise. The CMP video is to pro-choice arguments what walking across the room is to Zeno’s paradoxes – it doesn’t directly refute them, but it does demonstrate that abortion is a barbaric practice that no just society can tolerate.

        • “Question: should we become pro-choice if that happens? I believe there are very good reasons to say that the answer is ‘no’.”

          Agreed, and I think the reason is that the caring part of our minds cannot use philosophy/logic, and the philosophical/logical part (being committed to dispassion) cannot care. Only the part of our mind that cares, that says something matters, can take a moral, prescriptive stance — can say “should” or “shouldn’t.” The logical part can discuss the should’s but cannot feel them, so it cannot quite lead us to those feelings. It can lead us close to the door of moral intuition / prescriptive feeling — with luck very close — but in order to pass through and feel the intuition, feel that something matters, we have to leave logic behind.

          And Zeno’s proposition, which you say has been so difficult to disprove, was not even a moral proposition.

          Even if we assume that the unconscious out of which our moral intuitions come, formulates those intuitions through philosophy/logic, our conscious philosophical/logical powers are limited and may never be able to replicate that logic.

          I have thought about these things at this link.

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