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A Reply to Kristan Hawkins

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Kristan Hawkins, the national president of Students for Life of America, recently wrote an article on the use of so-called graphic images in the anti-abortion movement. Hawkins’ goal in writing the article was not to make a categorical argument against using pictures of abortion victims. Instead, she argued against their overuse in pro-life advocacy. Unfortunately, the article was marred by some significant tactical, factual, and logical errors. I am writing today to provide a respectful response to some of those errors.


Hawkins committed a serious tactical error in the opening of her article - one that has justifiably upset a number of people in the pro-life movement. She opened her article by admitting that on occasion she is tempted to go and scream at men who are dropping off their girlfriends at abortion facilities. But just as she restrains herself from screaming at them about their cowardice and about “God’s righteous judgment,” pro-lifers need to consider restraining themselves from showing “graphic pictures” of aborted children as the movement ushers in a “new generation.” Hawkins’ opening is problematic for at least three reasons.

First of all, there is simply no rational basis for comparing the tactic of showing abortion victim pictures with the tactic of screaming in the faces of people who have decided to have (or decided to help facilitate) an abortion. Reasonable people may disagree about the use of abortion victim pictures. But no reasonable person would seriously defend the tactic of screaming at people outside of abortion clinics. Even a subtle comparison between the two constitutes a grave error in judgment on Hawkins’ part.

Second, it is unwise to continue using the term “graphic” to describe these pictures. In this context, “graphic” means “provocative” or “prone to give offense.” The emphasis on the emotional reaction to the pictures invites relativism. We should not be defining these pictures in terms of the emotions they evoke. We should be defining them in terms of what they are: Pictures of abortion victims.


Third, it is generally a bad idea to suggest that we need to convey truth differently based on the audience we are trying to reach. I encounter this claim all the time in academia. The African American Studies professor tries to justify the use of Ebonics in order to communicate with blacks, the Women’s Studies professor castigates people for overreliance on “male logic” and so on. These suggestions make sense for those advancing a postmodern worldview. But they are ill suited for those espousing a Christian worldview, which is grounded in objective reality and oriented towards the ascertainment of objective truth. Suggesting new strategies for a new generation because they are steeped in relativism does not promote resistance to relativism. It is simply acquiescence to relativism.

Hawkins compounds her opening tactical errors with some factual errors later in the body of her article. For example, she notes two things about the first two videos exposing Planned Parenthood for selling body parts: 1) that these two videos had the most views on YouTube, and 2) that they didn’t show images of aborted babies. Hawkins presents this as evidence to bolster her argument against over-reliance on abortion victim pictures.

This is both poor research and sloppy thinking on Hawkins’ behalf. Around the time she published her article the first Planned Parenthood video had 2.9 million hits. The second one had 1.2 million hits. But the third and fourth videos had over 1.1 million hits. In other words, there was a drastic drop-off in views after the initial video launching the controversy. In fact, it was roughly a sixty percent drop-off. But then when the pictures of abortion victims enter the sequence in the third video the decline slows considerably. There is less than a ten percent drop-off in the third video, which features abortion victim pictures. In the fourth video, which also features abortion victim pictures, there is virtually no decline in interest.


Here is how a reasonable observer would interpret these numbers: Sequences of videos on any topic tend to decline steadily from the first in the sequence to the last in the sequence. That general trend is on display in the recent videos exposing Planned Parenthood before abortion victim pictures enter the sequence but not afterwards. These abortion victim pictures had the effect of slowing and indeed almost reversing the expected drop-off in viewer interest. Therefore, abortion victim pictures should remain an important focal point of anti-abortion advocacy.

Hawkins’ next factual error occurs when she claims that women who have decided to have an abortion have already seen abortion victim pictures while searching for an abortion clinic on the Internet. That is simply false as any reader can readily ascertain by Google searching the phrases “abortion services” and “abortion clinics.” No images show up in either case.

Had Hawkins done her research before making her claim it still would have been a meaningless example. Suppose the phrases, which are commonly used by women seeking an abortion, really did produce pictures of abortion victims. And suppose some women ignored them and had an abortion anyway. For purposes of comparison, how would Hawkins then measure the number of women who saw the images and decided not to have an abortion? Where would she go to measure the effects of viewing the images?


In addition to these tactical and factual errors there are a few logical errors that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, I am running of space. I’ll take them up in the next installment.

… To be continued.

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