Thursday, June 9, 2011

What is wrong with using graphic images to fight abortion?

Warning: This blog entry contains links to images and video that may be disturbing.
Question "Why would you want to silence the last voice for the unborn?"


That is how the question was actually put to me when I made negative comments about a video posted on Facebook by members of CCBR (Canadian Center for Bio ethical Reform).

A bit of preamble first. Please note the disclaimer at the top banner of my blog- I am just stating my opinion here, which I think is important to state, but I am not speaking on behalf of Catholicism or any of the institutions I work for.

CCBR runs a program called GAP- genocide awareness project, wherein they show graphic images of aborted fetuses typically on university campuses, although they also have a truck which drives around the streets of Calgary, and, evidently, they have now expanded to High School Campuses. In recent years they have received a lot of media attention as they have faced off with school admin, police, and local church authority on whether they should be permitted to show the images.

I consider many members of CCBR to be friends- notably Stephanie Gray, Jojo Ruba, and Ruth Lobo (who was recently arrested for protesting at Carleton University). All of them are intelligent, attractive, articulate, gracious, and genuinely faith filled people who I have no doubt are seeking the Lords will. (I think Stephanie bears a slight resemblance to Sweet Pea from Veggie Tales) All of them are much more competent to debate than I am, and could easily dismantle this article with the precision of a lawyer. I would love to challenge Stephanie Gray to a debate, but I am sure she would turn me down, as she has taken on much bigger contenders. But then I could say that she refuses to debate me! (It should be noted that since this entry was first posted, Stephanie has called my bluff and challenged me to a debate. I considered it, but in then end it was me who chose to refuse. I may be accused of cowardice, but I'm OK with that. I am not confident that debating Steph would be fruitful!)

I used to think that what they were doing was fantastic- in fact, I even considered volunteering to drive the truck for them! I had them in as guest speakers in some of the venues that I worked, but then one day Bishop Fred Henry refused to endorse them, as he did not agree with their methods. Which essentially meant that if we got them in, it would appear that we thought we knew better than he did what to do. And so the majority of Catholic venues- Churches, Schools, etc- opted not to have them speak or teach.

I was looking for a loophole. I thought, what if we staged a debate, wherein I took the Bishops side? I knew full well that I would get demolished, but we could at least present it as though it were balanced. (this is by no means false humility. Anyone who knows me, and knows Steph or Jojo will readily acknowledge that they are way out of my league!)

The debate never happened, but it got me thinking- what was the Bishops side, and how would he argue it? And lo and behold, I convinced myself that he was right and they were wrong! I began challenging them on various points, and despite CCBR's aforementioned brilliance, I have not been satisfied on many of them. In time I grew to believe that not only was their actions inappropriate, but they were in fact counterproductive. I have been reluctant to share my opinion publicly, in part because I am always suspicious of my own opinions, and in part because I like the people I know in CCBR, in fact I admire them, and while I know that the senior members will be able to debate with me without straining our friendship, I also want to be friends with the younger members, and they probably won't like what I say. But I find that when they post something on facebook, all of their allies quickly congratulate them, and the many people I have spoken to who agree with me remain silent, as I do. (Maybe it's a personality thing? The more outspoken you are, the more likely you are to support CCBR, the less outspoken you are, the less likely you are to speak out your objections?)

Enough preamble. Here are my arguments for why I am opposed to what CCBR does.

Though CCBR is an extremist fringe of the pro life movement, it's actions portray the illusion that the whole pro life movement agrees with their tactics. Thus if CCBR's tactics are viewed as nasty, the whole pro life movement will be viewed as nasty.

CCBR's stunts have garnered a lot of media attention. They are the most vocal component of the pro life movement, thus in the minds of many they are the pro life movement. This is destructive, for the same reason that people who predict the end of the world or burn the Koran discredit Christianity, or people who blow up airplanes discredit Islam.

CCBR discredits Pro Life, and by extension, discredits Christianity, making us all look nasty and condemning.

Overstating your argument makes it easier to refute.

If you want to defeat your opponent, set him up like a straw man. Make his arguments a ridiculous absolute, or so radical that it is easy to refute. Then you don't have to address the actual issue. This method is used very readily by Richard Dawkins.

CCBR does this to the pro-life message by calling abortion 'genocide'. Every thinking person knows that it is not in fact genocide. CCBR will drum out a definition of genocide from somewhere that abortion meets- something about systematically killing all the individuals in a particular demographic. The difficulty is that how most people define genocide, and I presume how most dictionaries define it, includes that there is an attempt to eradicate that demographic. Obviously pro-choicers do not intend to exterminate unborn humans.

If the message of CCBR is equated with the message of all of pro life, then by simply refuting the 'genocide' argument people will think that they have defeated the pro life argument. People will not be debating abortion, but semantics and tactics.

When a vegetarian tells me, 'meat is murder', I consider it laughable because it is too extreme and does not address the real issues. If they said "McDonalds is Genocidal" because of its use of Beef, I would not hear them out. But if they demonstrate that KFC is cruel to chickens- well now they have a point, and I will listen, and may even avoid KFC.

Likewise, calling abortion genocide when everyone knows its not makes your opponents think that if your opening line is so irrational, then likely the rest of your arguments are too.

Incidentally, genocide not only would be a cause for just war, and would necessitate it. We have a responsibility to fight genocide, with violence if necessary, and the UN agrees. Calling abortion genocide incites violence.

There is a difference between using a graphic image to fight abortion and using a graphic image to fight the holocaust, racism, and drunk driving.

Lets concede for the moment that there are circumstances where using graphic images is appropriate and effective. Lets ignore the argument that the images used by CCBR should be rated "R" by movie standards, and thus should not be posted where minors can see them, much less plastered on the side of a truck or brought to a high school without admins consent.

CCBR will often point to other cases where graphic images were used to make a point, that most people will agree was justified. Here's the problem. Seeing those graphic images of aborted fetuses feels to me like being punched in the face. Even though I am somewhat desensitized to them, having seen them a lot, even while writing this I went to their website for a moment, and had an instant emotional reaction.

I cannot imagine what a girl who had an abortion feels. CCBR will likely argue that it is not about feelings, but about fact. That's nice, but feelings motivate people, more than facts, and every one in marketing, media, and politics knows this. Get the heart, the mind will follow.

Those others mentioned- don't they feel punched? Maybe. But I think most people think they deserve it. Picture a Nazi in your head. Now picture a member of the KKK. Now a drunk who refuses to hand over his keys. Now a girl contemplating an abortion. One of these things is not like the others! 3/4 of them, I want to punch in the head, and I think a good number of people would congratulate me for doing so. But to the girl, I want to show compassion, I want to console, to forgive, to help her to forgive herself, to give her help.

Prolifers are perceived as people who want to punch girls considering abortion in the head, while planned parenthood and its affiliates are seen as people who want to help and console them. This is why we are losing the culture war! Remember that our long term goal is not to 'save one baby, and it's all worth while.' Our long term goal is to change our culture. Portraying ourselves as nasty extremists is counter productive.

When rights are abused they are diminished.

Recently a page walked to the center of the floor during a throne speech, holding a sign that said 'Stop Harper". She was, of course, escorted out by security. While many congratulate her brazenness and creativity, ( I thought it looked like an immature stunt, but anyway...) it begs the question- how far does the right to freedom of expression extend? What if everybody with an agenda did that? It would be impossible for our government to function, and it would shut down. And so when people lack a proper sense of decorum, when they will not police themselves, laws have to be made to force them. Imprudent use of freedom of speech results in diminished freedom of speech.

Universities and others are scrambling to find a way to stop CCBR from disobeying their statutes. When they find that they have no legal case, they are forced to make laws to ensure that it won't happen again. If CCBR will not respect legitimate authority, then why should Falun Gong or polygamy groups or men who love boys groups? Why shouldn't they all show up with posters rated R at High Schools to communicate their message? Obviously we cannot allow that, so we're going to have to make laws to stop it. There are already universities who will not permit a club that has a mandate of making abortion illegal. If we portray ourselves as defiant intellectual terrorists, perhaps someone will make a law that pro life groups are not permitted.

People don't listen when you shout.

Ever have someone shout something at you that you disagreed with? What happened, did you change your mind? You ever see 2 people debating, and one was shouting and in the others face, while the other remained calm? Who did you think was right?

Again, we're prompted by feelings. If you yell at me, I will become entrenched in my opinion, and if you yell at others, I will take the position opposite yours just out of spite... without even realizing it! CCBR knows this well. They do a fantastic job of training their people to be gracious, even when being yelled at, threatened, chanted down, insulted, etc. This is where they are most effective. People witness this, admire them, and think they are right.

The problem is that when all you see is the truck, or the pictures at university, or on the newspaper when one of them gets arrested... you don't see them being articulate and gracious, you just see a picture that yells!

What Saint would stand with you?

To me, this is really the strongest argument, although it will not resonate with everyone. I have made it my goal to be a Saint. As such, I try to imitate the saints of the past. Saints pray, so I try to, Saints do not overdulge and gather wealth, so I try not to. I am by no means anywhere close, but it gives me a compass anyway.

So I ask myself... what saint would have stood at a GAP display? Knowing what I know of their personalities... I think people could raise some pretty good debates about characters like John the Baptist, Joan of Arc, Damien of Molokai, Francis Xavier and Dorothy Day (who was not actually canonized and likely won't be for those very kind of reasons...). In my opinion, none of them would stand at a GAP display.

And niether would Christ. CCBR loves to answer the "Would Jesus use graphic images" argument by saying "He already did" and showing an image of Christ crucified from the Passion of the Christ. But I think they are confusing Jesus with Mel Gibson, who has also done some things that I think were discrediting to Christianity. At any rate, I think we would all agree that Jesus did not die on the Cross in order to create a graphic image, but rather his death happened to be graphic, and that is a very different thing. And the message that his graphic death communicated was not 'look how bad your sins are' but 'look how much I love you.'

Jesus could certainly be harsh, don't get me wrong. He was very harsh towards the pharisees and lawyers and the rich, and so on. Interestingly, those are the very same people that John the Baptist, Francis Xavier, Damien of Molokai and Dorothy Day fought with. None of them, from what I know, were harsh to prostitutes, or people married outside the church, or addicts, in short, the lowly sinners. I think girls who have abortions fall into that category- the kind of people Jesus was not harsh with, but would sit down and eat with.

When I consider the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus does not stone her, but tells her to sin no more. I think CCBR has more in common with the pharisees than with Christ in how they treat sinners.

CCBR is undermining the good work of other groups.

This is my concluding thought of the longest post I have ever written.

CCBR often objects that I cannot actually demonstrate that their work is counterproductive- that I rely a lot on anecdotal evidence and suppositions, and I don't have any stats or evidence to back up my opinions. However, neither can they prove that in the long term they are changing our culture. Frankly, I think the burden of proof is on them- after all, they're at it full time!

None the less, I intend to create a survey, which will hopefully use unbiased language, which can be distributed online so that people can anonymously weigh in and give their say as to whether CCBR's tactics are effective. At least then we can have an opinion poll! It would rely a lot on the integrity of those taking the poll, but it would be interesting! Check back here to see if I got around to it.

Meanwhile, let us agree that CCBR may be effective, it may not be. Other prolife events are suffering because of them. CCBR (and like minded people) have hijacked events like the Life Chain in Calgary and the March for Life in Edmonton. Because they see their tactics as the most effective, they refuse to leave them, even though other people will not support those events because they do not want to be associated with the graphic images! I have anecdotal evidence for the Life Chain and 40 days for life event, of people not wanting to go if the images are there. But more importantly, the Alberta bishops did not attend the March for Life because of the images, as reported in the Western Catholic Reporter.

Prolife groups have also commented that people are no longer giving to them, because though they are not the ones putting up the images, the association is made and people want no part in it.

My last argument is that they are tying up resources that could otherwise be used for things that are effective. Money, for example, from donors. If they were not giving to CCBR, presumably they'd be giving to either pro life or evangelistic or humanitarian causes.

But more importantly they tie up human resources. I am not exaggerating when I say that Stephanie Gray and Jojo Ruba are two of the most logical and articulate voices I know for pro life and other causes. But they are so dedicated to their tactics that they refuse to speak without them. As a result, Catholic schools and other institutions in deference to their bishops cannot bring them in! It is unimaginable the fruits that they could bring if they went on a speaking tour to Catholic High School religion classes. And despite the depiction in the video, Catholic schools are becoming increasingly powerful allies in the fight for truth, and faithful Catholics should be looking to strengthen and work with them rather than to attack them.

I pray daily for an end to abortion and an overturn of the culture of death, and often I pray specifically for CCBR that they will do good work that will bear fruit. Let's pray that they have the humility and wisdom to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit!

As an after thought, I'm always challenged to come up with something that does work. Here's what I think-

1. Evangelization is more important than fighting abortion, and more urgent, so focus on that primarily.
2. 40 days for life seems very effective to me, so that's another good idea. What does Abby Johnson think of graphic images?
3. I think CCBR is kind of like green peace- big stunts to get attention, but does it work? Incovenient Truth worked way better. I know people are trying the documentary route- seems like a good idea!
4. Get Jojo and Steph into the schools! If they stop breaking rules, I bet they can get in!


  1. What saint would stand at a "Choice?" Chain? Any of the men or women who became saints in the WWII concentration camps, those who could have had their freedom secured, but identified too completely with the condemned to ever think of abandoning them.

  2. What Catholics don't realize is they are actually pro-abortion. If you were really pro-life and wanted to reduce abortions then Catholics should end all ties to their own church and support responsible sexual practises. It is a demonstrable fact that the lower levels of religiosity and increased use of birth control leads to far fewer abortions.

  3. THank you for the thoughtful article Peter. It is a confusing issue, and tough to be put in the position where you feel as though you have to choose between supporting the bishop (the rightful authority in the church) and the unborn. I really believe we can get further if we support our bishops and work under their authority. Thank you for getting me thinking about this!