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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Former Director of Training

Timothy Brahm was formerly 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.

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