By Tina Whittington, Executive Vice President of Students for Life of America
My first experience “doing something” about abortion was going with Rock for Life to an abortion facility in Portland, Oregon to pray and hold up signs with images of aborted babies on them. We went early in the morning on an abortion day and I was a little nervous. Nervous because I had never done anything like this before, nervous because I had never proclaimed the truth about abortion EVER, and never in such a big way.
That first day was difficult. The girls getting abortions were able to go to a back driveway and bypass us so we never engaged with them directly. We got lots of honks and one finger salutes, but I was encouraged because I knew they had seen the truth about abortion.
This same year Rock for Life was organizing protests of the Lilith Fair, a traveling music festival that raised money for abortion organizations. I participated by holding images of aborted babies that the concert goers had to pass on their way into the venue. As you can imagine, the response to our presence was overwhelmingly negative as the concert-goers knew that Planned Parenthood was one of the main charities being supported by the event and that abortion advocacy was a major focus of the event. This was in 1998.
Over the years I did more activism using these images. I walked through the White House during Clinton’s presidency wearing a t-shirt with a picture of an aborted baby on it, counter-protested NARAL’s March for Women’s Lives, and did other abortion facility outreach with the images.
However, over time, how I used these images changed.
With Rock for Life we were doing a lot of outreach to high school students at churches, music festivals, and Christian conferences where the public use of these images was not allowed. We had to modify our approach to showing the pictures by consent. Sometimes we would show the Silent Scream video and we would let everyone know what they were about to view that they could leave the room or close their eyes if they were uncomfortable.
We started taking a binder of images of aborted babies with us when we tabled at events so that if we were having a conversation with someone who was not sure where they stood on abortion, we could ask them if they wanted to see what abortion looked like. Many of the people who agreed to look at the binder of images were horrified and became pro-life. We knew that for so many people, seeing the outcome of abortion, seeing abortion’s victim, solidified their pro-life stance and passion.
Never at any time do I remember having a conversation with the Rock for Life team about the what was a more effective strategy between public display and consent, or even about a need to create a policy on graphic images. We just slowly made a shift in what we did based on circumstances and then on what we saw working.
In 2010 I started working for Students for Life full-time. One of my tasks in my first years was to take the SFLA values and quantify them into policy statements that were clear, uncompromising, and had a spirit of unity with the overall pro-life movement. From my previous work, I knew that the use of graphic images was a line in the sand for some pro-life people and organizations and that this would be one policy statement we would have to tackle. Here is what we finalized on:
SFLA does not take an official stance on the use of graphic images in the pro-life movement. We recognize both the positive and negative aspects of using graphic images and work with groups who stand on both sides of this issue. We believe there are times and places where graphic images are more effective than others, and we work with student groups to help them weigh this activism option for their campus, ultimately letting them make the decision on the use of graphic images.
I know for many it looks like a cop out – we didn’t take a stance on the use of graphic images. But herein lies the take away on graphic images: Sometimes they work to change hearts and minds, sometimes they don’t work. Sometimes the people who hold the images are emotionally ready and apologetically equipped to hold them and sometimes they are not. We have seen campuses won over by large abortion image displays and others that became so hostile that the Students for Life group on campus died.
We often get people who try to pull us into a public debate over the use graphic images and we just politely decline. There have been no large scale studies on the effectiveness of abortion victim images, to examine what images and public displays are best, or if seeing the same images by consent has a different effectiveness. I could easily find 100 people who became pro-life because of the public use of these images, 100 who became pro-life because they consented to see the images, and 100 who were not changed with either. Debates like this get down to who has the best stories not who can prove their effectiveness and there is zero ground to be gained like that.
If you are considering bringing a graphic image display to your campus, we would love to help you! Talk to your Regional Coordinator because they know the best groups in your area who do this (there are several national and local groups who own these displays that you can host on your campus – some are free and some you have to pay for). Your RC can make sure your group gets the training they need to dialogue effectively at the display, and prep your group for any pushback or negative media that may arise.
If you don’t want to do outreach with graphic images, that’s ok too! Students for Life has several large displays you can host on campus that do not have graphic images on them. Talk to your Regional Coordinator about hosting one this fall! They will get you trained and ready to reach your campus, dialogue effectively, and prep your group for any push back or negative media that may arise.
Surprise! Sometimes even with pictures of alive babies in utero, or pink crosses representing the babies Planned Parenthood kills each day, people will get mad. Facing abortion is uncomfortable for people no matter what your approach is. For us at Students for Life, the main issue is that your group is consistently causing people to face the reality of abortion, forcing the dialogue – because when we consistently talk about abortion we win. We have opened someone’s eyes, we have planted a seed, maybe we even outright converted them to a pro-life position on the spot, or helped a young woman choose life. All of those things are a win, because changing culture happens through constant exposure to the truth!