In the Abortion Debate, the Facts Matter

Fletcher Armstrong
Posted: Sep 29, 2015 12:01 AM
In the Abortion Debate, the Facts Matter

In the world of pro-life activism, some pro-lifers have a rather disparaging but also confusing view of abortion victim photos (AVPs) as a tool for pro-life activism.

They don’t necessarily rule out the use of AVPs altogether, recognizing that they are “a tool in the toolkit.” But they believe AVPs should be employed only under limited circumstances, without ever specifying what those limitations should be. They unfairly associate displaying AVPs with screaming at women and other uncivilized behavior.

They argue that AVPs are not the only tactic pro-lifers should use. But who believes we should display AVPs and do nothing else? This is a straw-man argument that people often use to downplay the need to show them at all.

The facts matter. As a movement, we can never end abortion until we change public opinion, because 60 to 70 percent of the public believes first-trimester abortion should be legal. In any court, the facts matter. If the facts favor one of the litigants, his attorney does everything possible to not only make the facts known, but also to prove they are true. Then he builds his arguments upon those facts. Conversely, opposing counsel suppresses the facts as a way to undermine those arguments. The same happens in the court of public opinion.

The most relevant facts are (1) the preborn is a living human being, and (2) abortion is a savage act of violence that decapitates and dismembers little human beings. For most of our audience, those are unproven claims, but AVPs can prove them at a glance. What else can do that? The facts are on our side, but so many in our movement believe we can win the debate without proving the facts. How can that be?

Numbers matter, too. In the abortion debate, the jury is the roughly 50% of Americans who are in the “mushy middle.” They don’t know much, they don’t care much, and they like it that way. It’s easier not to care. Yet, these are precisely the millions whose minds we must change. Let us call them the MM-50 (mushy middle 50%). To win, we must convince millions of the MM-50 that abortion is so evil it ought to be against the law. (Really, it’s tens of millions, but let’s not quibble.)

Relationships matter, but they don’t replace the facts. Some suggest we can end abortion through personal conversations and relationships. Of course they are important, but conversations are much more productive when based on proven facts. Even our best friends won’t accept arguments based on unproven claims they believe to be false or exaggerated.

Relationships and facts are not mutually exclusive. William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson also had personal conversations and relationships, but they were ineffective at changing public opinion until they clarified the horrifying facts. When they started using victim images, they didn’t abandon conversations and relationships. In fact, their conversations were more effective and relationships more productive than ever, because images gave their audience a better understanding of the facts.

AVPs create opportunities for dialogue. Most of the MM-50 are committed to ignorance and apathy, so they don’t speak with us. They don’t “opt in” to our videos or anything else, but we must reach them anyway. By displaying AVPs at just a few campus locations, we annually create tens of thousands of conversations about abortion. They don’t want to speak with us, but when they see AVPs, they can’t help themselves. And the thoughtful, respectful conversations far outnumber the other kind.

Mass media matters. To convert millions of the MM-50, our conversations aren’t enough. There are simply too few of us. PP doesn’t depend on one-on-one encounters; they depend on mass media, including the news media, the government, and the educational establishment. To make matters worse, they don’t even have to prove their claims. We do.

The dominant media won’t help us, but we can create our own media. By using large displays featuring AVPs, we can deliver and prove the facts to millions of the MM-50 we could never reach with a conversation.

Of course we don’t convert everyone, but we do convert some every time we display AVPs. Furthermore, we change the nature of the debate, from the abstraction of choice to the reality of what is being chosen.

Yes, women still abort, but that doesn’t mean AVPs don’t work. Some attempt to discount the effectiveness of AVPs based on the response of some aborting mothers. Some women see AVPs and still abort. Of course. But the logic of this argument fails on three points. First, any sampling of women going into abortion clinics cannot include the women who see AVPs and decide not to come to the clinic at all. Conversely, women who get abortions could perhaps view AVPs beforehand, but that doesn’t mean they all actually do.

Second, women speak to sidewalk counselors without AVPs and still abort. Does that mean sidewalk counseling without AVPs doesn’t work as well as its advocates claim?

Pregnant women are not our only audience. The third reason the “women still abort” argument fails is that abortion-minded mothers are not our only target audience, or even our primary target. In the battle for public opinion, everyone (in particular, every voter) is our target. In a given election year, about 1.2 million women abort, but 100 times that many men and women vote. People who are not in a panic and not already committed to a particular course of action are much more likely to receive hard truth and consider unfamiliar arguments.

Times do change. But people? Not so much. Some suggest that times have changed, and pictures won’t work for us like they worked for Lewis Hine and Martin Luther King. Yes, times have changed. The dominant media won’t help us like it helped them. But the human inclination to rationalize bad behavior and avoid inconvenient truth is timeless.

They suggest that facts aren’t as important to modern moral relativists, but they confuse moral relativism with factual relativism. Believing “your truth isn’t always my truth” is not the same as believing “your facts aren’t always my facts.” We have shown AVPs to millions of students. Although people have (sometimes) questioned whether our pictures are factual, or (more often) have disagreed with our conclusions, nobody has ever claimed that facts don’t matter.

The Center for Medial Progress (CMP) videos demonstrate the effectiveness of AVPs, but also the futility of opt-in strategies. The CMP videos are effective, but only to a limited degree, with a limited audience, and for a limited time.

The videos are effective because they focus on the collection and sale of hearts, eyes, brains, etc. These words evoke word-pictures that our usual talk of “lives” and “babies” simply do not.

In this unique and temporary circumstance, we don’t have to prove our claims because abortion-industry managers are doing all the talking. For those who actually watch the videos (which is a relatively small audience), the facts are undeniable. But when the story has run its course and PP no longer grants hidden-camera interviews, the facts will be disputed and we will have to prove our claims.

The videos have created an uproar because they have unified and energized us . . . for a time. They have emboldened squeamish pro-life politicians to defund PP in a very few states. But our objective isn’t to create an uproar or even defund PP; our objective is to end abortion, and this is possible only by changing the opinions of millions of the MM-50. Unfortunately, public polling has demonstrated that most people (primarily those in the MM-50) know little or nothing about the videos.

What can we do? Now that the CMP has reminded us how much the facts matter, and also how much pictures matter, we must figure out a way to force-feed the facts into the collective conscience of the MM-50. But this is a more distrusting audience than our pro-life friends on Facebook, so word-pictures won’t be enough. It will have to be the real thing. And they won’t come to us (on Facebook or anywhere else), so we have to go to them (in the public square) and make the facts unavoidable.

AVP skeptics foster the illusion that because there are many things we can and should do, we can win without AVPs — we cannot — and therefore AVPs are optional for the movement — they are not. There are of course people who can’t use them at all, and there are times to put them aside and do something else, but we cannot win if we help PP suppress the facts.

The failure of the pro-life movement isn’t that we have made the facts too visible; the failure is that we haven’t made them visible enough.