Commentary Abortion

Bloody Fetus Pictures Aren’t About Persuasion—They’re About Bullying

Amanda Marcotte

Anti-choice protesters are irate that San Antonio officials won't let them disgust people with bloody footage on a Jumbotron outside the Alamo. It's time to ask why anti-choicers keep trying these gross-out techniques when they have no reason to think they'll ever change people's minds.

Personal disclosure time: I am a weenie. About surgery, at least. If I’m watching a TV show or a movie and there’s a scene involving scalpels and bodies on an operating table, I hide my eyes like a child watching a scary movie and wait for the “all clear” from my boyfriend before I’ll peer out again.

While I’m sometimes momentarily ashamed for being unable to handle the gore, I also know, on some level, that this is usually the reaction the director wants me to have as a viewer. Graphic surgery scenes often serve to unsettle the audience and prove a sense of dread and horror. Given that the audience knows that the intention is to provide us entertainment—to scare us in the same way riding a roller coaster does—it’s generally considered OK to emotionally manipulate people this way. But if you ran around a subway car flashing videos of invasive surgery at others, they would think you were a bully. And they would be right.

I bring this up on a reproductive rights website for the obvious reason: For decades now, anti-choicers have waved shadily sourced, graphic pictures of embryos and fetuses at sports games, on street corners, at college campuses, and pretty much anywhere else large crowds of people are gathered.

This week, an Ohio-based group has been throwing a fit because officials in San Antonio, Texas, told them they couldn’t put up a Jumbotron to run a reel of disgusting images and video clips of a procedure that they claim is abortion. (Again, the sourcing on this stuff is really sketchy, given that the video has no context or information to verify its authenticity.) The city reasonably believes that people going in and out of the Alamo should not be made to watch gory videos purporting to be of someone’s surgery.

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This seems quite reasonable, but Love of Truth Ministries is crying political oppression. Its representatives, along with other anti-choicers, claim the “sickening imagery” tactic is necessary to impress upon people the moral weight of abortion.

But that argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. After all, there’s probably not an American left who hasn’t seen those photos, but support for abortion rights remains steady. As Katha Pollitt details extensively in her new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, how people feel about abortion rights has little to nothing to do with their attachment to embryos or fetuses. Rather, it tracks more closely to their stances on women’s liberation and sexual freedom. (For more information about Pro, you can listen to my Reality Cast interview with Pollitt here.)

Even if you dig into stories of people who converted to being anti-choice after having abortions, you never hear someone say, “I saw this grody picture, and knew then abortion had to be banned.” Something else almost always prompts the shift—usually something to do with one’s religion or familial pressure.

In short, gory photos don’t do anything to change people’s minds about abortion. But this utter lack of persuasive power doesn’t seem to shake anti-choicers of their conviction that what the world needs now is more stomach-turning pictures of people’s surgical procedures.

It is true that powerful imagery can be used to make people uncomfortable for the purposes of political persuasion. For instance, Nick Ut’s disturbing photo of a girl named Kim Phuc running naked while napalm burns her skin off is credited with helping end the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Similarly, graphic photos of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison helped coalesce American resistance to the war in Iraq. The NFL was clearly going to twiddle its thumbs forever over domestic violence if that awful video of Ray Rice punching his fiancée in the face hadn’t been released to the public. Imagery can help wake people up to morally challenging realities they often would rather not face.

The problem is that grossing people out is not, in itself, morally challenging them. God knows you could probably make me sick with, say, heart surgery videos, but it doesn’t mean I’d be any closer to thinking heart surgery should be banned; as gross as I find the procedure, I know it’s necessary to allow people to live complete and meaningful lives. Same story with abortion: It’s not pretty to look at, but it is absolutely necessary to protect women’s right to live their lives as full and equal human beings.

I’m forced, therefore, to conclude that the motivation behind anti-choicers constantly thrusting these pictures at people is plain old bullying. Their protests are akin to puking on the street and claiming you’re doing it for freedom: You can say it, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy it. Like subway gropers, drunk people who won’t leave you alone in bars, and flashers, waving bloody fetus pictures is all about getting some kind of attention, and not really caring what kind. If you’re so desperate for a reaction, any reaction at all, that you’ll declare “grossed out” a victory, you’re just a troll.

It’s not, of course, a new observation that anti-choice protesters are better understood as a bunch of bullies rather than legitimate protesters trying to make coherent political points. At least not to pro-choice activists, who often get a face full of the way so many anti-choice protesters will prioritize being offensive and hateful any day. See, for instance, the situation in Huntsville, Alabama, where anti-choice militants have taken to tailing clinic workers in traffic and filming women who are walking into the clinic—behavior that crosses so far over the harassment line that it can’t be reasonably understood as political discourse.

However, it does seem that there is still some confusion over this, particularly in light of the Supreme Court decision in McCullen v. Coakley, which somehow redefined harassment as “sidewalk counseling.” So it’s worth reiterating that San Antonio, for example, isn’t “oppressing” Love of Truth Ministries. The city is just taking reasonable measures to protect residents—and money-spending tourists—from being bullied by people who just like getting a rise out of others.

The fact is that anti-choicers have used the same two techniques—flaunting bloody fetus pictures and unleashing personalized harassment—for decades now, with no apparent result on the American public mindset. (Though, as harassment often does, it has made people too afraid to do their perfectly legal jobs in offering reproductive health care, including abortion.) If they sincerely believed that they were out there trying to change minds, they would regroup and try to come up with better tactics that actually work. But if they’re mostly a bunch of hobbyists whose hobby is trolling for attention, well, they would keep doing what they’re doing. Their choice to stick with the latter speaks far more about their intentions than their words ever could.

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