Immediate Moral Repulsion: The Value of Photographs to the Pro-Life Cause

“Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong.”
-Lady Bird

“The immediate moral repulsion would be one of the objections to baby-killing; perhaps his chief objection to baby-killing.”
-G.K. Chesterton

It is a matter of controversy, among those opposed to and in favor of abortion, whether or not one should use images of the act itself and its consequences to protest. Unsurprisingly, the pro-abortion side believes that it is manipulative and exploitative to parade around images of dismembered fetuses as a way to protest dismembering fetuses. They accuse us of being irrational, mean, and uncivil in doing so. Yet there are also those within the anti-abortion movement who chide us for using such frank, honest imagery. They say it makes us look bad, as if we’re the ones stabbing unborn babies in the skull, sucking their brains out, and and tearing them apart with forceps. They urge us to keep the argument academic and clinical (though not in the clinic), bemoaning it as crass and unconvincing to employ visual aids.

Well to that, I’d say, a picture is worth a thousand words.


(9-14 weeks, Copyright
Well that’s an awful bloody mess, isn’t it? Blood is shed, of course, in any number of necessary medical operations. And what is blood for, if not for shedding? But what medical procedure could justify setting your hooks in such a defenseless and small child and ripping her from groin to gullet? We look at that photo and see dismembered bodies unmistakably human. Hands, fingers, knees, and toes. Why?

10 Week Abortion (“Copyright
10 Week Abortion (“Copyright

They say this is not an argument. They say that it is a cheap appeal to emotion. Well I am trying to appeal to emotion, to humanity, to the basic instinct of decency that every person possesses. You see there a tiny baby’s head, bloodied and set next to a dime. Those are visual facts. One condemning the display of such damming imagery would prefer the debate remain detached and hypothetical. They claim that showing such proof of an uncivilized act is gratuitously inflammatory and ruins a civilized discussion. They would prefer their sob stories about raped teenagers (such as the kind Planned Parenthood gladly returns to their abusers, no questions asked. Look up George Edward Savannah) and absurd thought experiments about violinists kidnapping the innocent. But no amount of rhetoric can dispute what is plainly visible to the naked eye: an atrocity.

During the congressional debate over partial-birth abortion, a truly barbaric act wherein the late-term viable infant is delivered up to the neck before being stabbed in the skull and its brain sucked out, Senator Frank Lautenberg said “Surgical procedures are never pretty.” That’s true, but he was responding to Senator Rick Santorum (who simply used drawn diagrams rather than color photographs), who correctly pointed out that this was not an appendectomy. This is:

Not pleasant to look at, to be sure. You sort of lose your appetite after looking at a graphic photograph of a necessary medical operation like that. In the previously quoted film Lady Bird, the eponymous Lady Bird says that if you took a photo of her vagina during menstruation, it would also look unpleasant, but it would not be morally wrong. That’s true (I’m not going to post photos of an underage girl’s genitals. I’m not a pedophile like the rapists Planned Parenthood enables and accepts money from), but it is annoying that the pro-life speaker she makes this crude argument to, a straw woman surely, is speechless and flustered. In the interest of illustrating the sassiness and wit of her young heroine, writer/director Greta Gerwig was not so charitable as to give her opponent the simple rebuttal I will be making today:

22 weeks (
22 weeks (

That’s a 22 week abortion. That baby has hair. Wendy Davis is getting a laudatory Sandra Bullock biopic for arguing that should be legal.

My response to Lautenberg and Lady Bird is, very simply, it is a different kind of repulsion all together. That should be obvious. What does one feel when looking at a routine appendectomy? Disgust, squeamishness, something like that. The audience would feel all that when viewing an abortion in explicit detail, but there would be something else as well. Outrage. Sadness. What Chesterton astutely describes as immediate moral repulsion. The instinctual moral aspect of the reaction is something pro-abortionists ignore when making the “Ugly isn’t Immoral” argument. There is no moral component to wincing at an appendectomy or the removal of a gall bladder. No sense of righteous anger or injustice that accompanies seeing the corpse of a human child who has been unnaturally killed and ripped apart. It’s a clear line between disgust and disdain.

Some people would say that we must ignore and suppress our basic human reactions rising from basic human decency to these photos. That if we’re outraged at these images and demand the practice stop, those are knee-jerk, irrational, emotional responses. They’d say we should be cold, calmed, detached. That the way to make an objective judgement is to take out the visceral component. Ask us to be pragmatic, consider the practical applications of what an abortion ban would entail. Point to statistics and argue that the aborted babies (disproportionally black) would grow up to be criminals and a detriment to society. These are the same people who use the inane line “You can’t legislate morality”, ignoring the obvious fact that every law ever written anywhere ever has a moral component. Moral instincts, judgement, and the way we live our lives always include, by necessity, an emotional response. We are men, not machines. The world has soundly rejected the false song of utilitarianism and the horror of eugenics. The corpse of a sick old woman burnt to death might be ugly to look at, but does that mean it makes sense for an able-bodied young fireman, still of great benefit to society, to risk his useful life by running into a burning building to rescue her? Swift’s Modest Proposal might be practical, but we know it to be very dark satire. Every society has “undesirables” whose swift elimination would mean less medical burden, a stronger economy, and/or less crime. That doesn’t mean we advocate genocide. Because like it or not, morality is not always pragmatic. We spend a lot of resources defending the defenseless, sheltering the indigent, and supporting the disabled. A perfectly rational society with pragmatic goals might mandate forced sterilization and wiping out the homeless. A just one would not. It’s no surprise though, that as regards the abortion debate, some want to take the human factor out of the argument. They already want to take out the human.

Self-proclaimed pro-choicers vehemently oppose requiring women to view ultrasounds of their fetus before getting an abortion. But to be pro-choice means to support an informed choice, surely. Why wouldn’t you want the woman whose side you claim to be on to have all the information possible about this choice you cherish so much? They claim it’s a form of bullying, as if women whose strength they supposedly extol are unable to handle the full weight of the issue. This resistance to simple information is very telling.

Don’t underestimate the power of images, and don’t dismiss the validity of the human response. Some good can come of it. Below is a photo of “Baby Boy A”, shown as evidence to the jury in the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell:

The jury was rightfully horrified at seeing this body of a baby Gosnell killed after delivery, and they convicted him of murder. Fine, but that’s an extreme case regarding a late-term abortion that would be illegal anyway. The question remains, can viewing this imagery change any hearts and minds? Ask Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who presented the documentary, The Silent Scream to President Reagan and the American nation:
This is a man who was instrumental in getting abortion legalized in the United States, a doctor personally responsible for over 75,000 abortions. Nathanson changed his mind about the morality of the procedure after viewing a sonogram in the 1970s. If the technology of 40 years ago was enough to convince a man that entrenched in the pro-abortion movement, why shouldn’t we use that as a persuasive technique? Look how far we’ve come!

20 weeks, Wendy.
20 weeks, Wendy.

Let me call a bluff here. If the photos are such a bad idea, if they really make the pro-life movement come off as irrational, reactionary bullies, shouldn’t the pro-choice side encourage the usage? If an abortion is simply unpleasant to look at but it is foolish to consider it immoral, than why not make us look like fools? If this is a morally neutral medical procedure, don’t you want the information about it spread, and those who oppose it exposed?

I suspect not.

Could it be that the reason showing such graphic images of this subject is considered bad taste because the activity itself is bad?

This is all unpleasant of course, and we’ll move on. I’d rather show you positive images. Like little Lyla, who lived after being delivered at only 21

Wendy Davis, champion of woman’s rights, doesn’t believe that little girl has the right to live. We’re all more comfortable when the debate is safe in quiet rhetoric, in hypotheticals, in academic discussions. That doesn’t mean it’s more honest or moral, or productive.

I don’t pretend I’m gonna convert anybody by displaying these images we all know to be abhorrent. But perhaps you may reconsider whether the logic behind your assumption that visceral disgust is separate from a moral compass is as sound as you claim.

Look, you have eyes and I assume some semblance of a conscience. See for yourself and make your own judgement. I’ll just leave you with one last quote, courtesy of devout Christian and tireless abolitionist William Wilberforce:

You may choose to look away AHA

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