Columnists

Joyce Arthur
Why fetus porn doesn't help the anti-choice cause

| July 5, 2013
Rally against the CCBR's Anti Abortion Caravan at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Pho

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Imagine this: Your 5-year-old son runs to scoop up the mail that drops through your door slot. Except it's not from your trusted mail carrier -- it's a postcard featuring a large graphic photo of an aborted fetus. As you try to reassure your confused and traumatized child, your anger builds. What kind of sick person would invade the privacy of your home and force unsuspecting family members to view such offensive pictures?

The answer is the unethical "Centre for Bio-ethical Reform" (CCBR), an extremist anti-abortion group whose volunteers have been hand-delivering 250,000 graphic postcards to every constituent in several ridings where the Member of Parliament recently voted against an anti-abortion motion. The postcards feature a picture of the MP next to an aborted fetus.

The CCBR has specialized in displaying fetus porn in public since its founding in 2001, using travelling billboards, large posters and other postcards (which they even sell). With the possible exception of their MP postcard campaign, the CCBR has garnered only a smattering of mostly bad publicity over the years, such as this story. The lack of media coverage reflects how little impact the CCBR is having on our culture, despite their bravado and aggressive tactics. In fact, I would argue that abortion rights in Canada are more firmly rooted today than in 2001, possibly in part because of the group's own destructive tactics.

The use of fetus porn is a sign of desperation. It's been 40 years since abortion was legalized in the U.S. and Canada, yet the anti-choice movement has failed to convince people through civil advocacy that abortion is "murder." Resorting to fetus porn is a bid to grab peoples' attention through shock tactics. But these pictures have been in widespread use for 20 years now, with zero evidence they have caused any shift in public opinion towards anti-choice views. It's not hard to figure out why. Most Canadians have an aversion to fanatical extremism, especially when it lands on their doorstep. Ken Mandzuik of Winnipeg, a new member of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, recently copied us on an email he sent to the CCBR:

"Today I had the distinct displeasure of receiving a vile mailer suggesting doctors performing legal procedures were akin to Nazis. Receiving it so soon after Dr. Morgentaler's passing made it all the more distasteful. I'm a man who has always supported and respected a woman's right to make her own health choices. Your disgusting anti-choice mailer provoked me for the first time to make a donation to a pro-choice organization. I have encouraged my friends to do the same."

Over the years, we have received frequent complaints from the public over fetus porn campaigns by CCBR and other groups -- especially from parents with children who are subjected to the displays without notice. But the CCBR remains in denial over the largely counter-productive effects of their imagery, even while fending off criticism from their own side. Some leading voices in Canada's anti-choice movement oppose the use of graphic pictures, as do many in the U.S. movement. American Kristen Walker refutes the CCBR's claim that graphic pictures work to change minds:

"I sincerely believe that those images, in most cases, (1) fail to accomplish what they are meant to accomplish and (2) have a further deleterious effect. ... To wit: (1) they do not make pro-choicers or abortion-minded women suddenly see the human tragedy of abortion, and (2) they make us look like a bunch of crazy people. ... I am sure there are people who have been converted by graphic images... I have, however, never met one of those people. What I have met are dozens upon dozens of people for whom those images had the exact opposite effect, creating a public opinion of the pro-life movement as disrespectful, combative, and cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. ... I don't think the pro-graphic image people understand: pro-choicers do not see what you see. ... They see something icky, forced on them by icky people."

The CCBR will never admit that their tactics generally result in a knee-jerk rejection of the anti-abortion movement. Instead, they offer dubious claims like "our own experience shows that images are a powerful tool to change peoples' feelings, thinking, and behaviour." They assert that fetus porn "stimulates dialogue," and cite examples of people who've become "pro-life" after seeing it. That actually happened to Kristen Walker, but she puts it into perspective:

"... for every one person who sees that image and is moved towards an understanding of abortion, there are 99 people who are simply disgusted by the person holding the sign. And that is not good for our cause."

Since the CCBR provides their contact information on their postcards, one can only imagine the flood of angry emails and phone calls they've been receiving, the extent of which they'll never disclose, of course. What noble martyrs they are, suffering silently under a torrent of abuse!

Because of the volume of hate mail they receive, the CCBR sends out a form letter that answers common public objections by deflecting all the blame onto abortion instead of their own actions. For example, in responding to the harms they cause to women who've had abortions, they say: "We recognize the intense pain and suffering abortions have caused people. ... We wish to help people avoid this pain to begin with, and to encourage the wounded to find healing. What we often point out is that there is a difference between triggers and trauma, and abortion, not the pictures, is the trauma."

The CCBR always reverts to fanaticism and finger-pointing to defend itself. When someone calls their use of fetal porn "despicable" they reply: "The 'despicable' thing is that innocent blood is being shed in clinics across our land, funded with taxpayer dollars." When people express outrage over the imagery being forced upon them, the CCBR basically scolds them for their moral blindness because: "Where is our sense of outrage at the daily bloodshed of children who are so vulnerable that their silent screams cannot be heard?" To defend their traumatization of children who see their pictures, they blame parents for a child's bad reaction, lecturing them to remain calm and use it as a teaching moment to "rationally" explain why abortion is bad.

Such bizarre and callous advice indicates how little the CCBR understands the pro-choice view and human psychology in general. Regardless of what abortion might look like (and I'll get to that in a minute), it's a vital medical procedure that protects and saves women's lives. People don't appreciate hateful displays that label women as murderers, or that make them feel enraged or defensive. People aren't stupid either -- they can sense some of the true motivations behind showing these pictures -- a vindictive desire to shame women who have abortions, a smoldering resentment against the pro-choice public, a perverse pleasure in upsetting people, and the arrogance of self-righteous martyrdom. The CCBR folks do indeed suffer from delusions of grandeur, comparing themselves to social reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr., suffragist Alice Paul, and slavery abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. It's too bad they left off the list one of Canada's most revered social reformers -- Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

One of CCBR's main justifications for using graphic imagery is that it's been used to good effect in the past, such as showing the horrors of the Holocaust and the slave trade to shock the complacent public and inspire action to save people. The flaw in CCBR's logic is that fetuses are not people with rights because they live inside women's bodies. This means the only appropriate use of graphic imagery in the abortion context is to show the effects of restrictive laws on actual people -- women. Even so, the iconic photo of Gerri Santoro, the Connecticut woman who died from a self-induced illegal abortion in 1964, is the only such photo I have ever seen. And frankly, it's the only one we need. (The sheer ubiquity of fetus porn compels one to wonder whether anti-choicers love it more than they hate it.)

The CCBR calls their propaganda "education." This absurdity hardly seems to merit a response, but it rests on the dubious claim that their pictures are "true," even though they can't or won't provide any legitimate provenance for them. While no one knows how the CCBR obtains its imagery, most other fetus porn I've seen is propaganda produced and marketed by American anti-choice activists, who have been known to carefully stage the photographs, arranging fetal parts in gruesome poses, and even tossing fetuses into a bucket or garbage can for a better photo-op. (So much for anti-choicers' much-vaunted "respect for life".) As to where the fetuses came from, sources are usually unknown or misattributed. Many appear to be from old illegal abortions, some might come from other countries where abortion is restricted, and some are even stolen from hospitals or otherwise ill-gotten (as described by Cynthia Gorney in her 1998 book Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, pages 99-106). Most pictures supposedly show later abortions, but doctors and nurses who have looked at them say they more likely depict miscarriages and stillbirths. Regardless, such fetus porn is not representative of most abortions because 90 per cent occur before 12 weeks. When anti-choicers do show alleged early abortions, they have to greatly magnify the photos to achieve any shock value. (For a genuine photograph of a typical early abortion, see here.)

Can anything be done to mitigate the community harms caused by fetus porn in public? Although the CCBR claims that tactics like their postcard campaigns are legally protected via free expression rights, this seems overconfident. Free speech does not extend to forcing oneself on a captive audience. And courts are especially concerned about harms to children, which means that Charter rights can be limited to protect children to a far greater extent than for adults. In addition, cities and municipalities have the leeway to pass bylaws to keep the peace, prevent nuisance or indecency, protect private property, limit offensive signage in public, and so on.

If you or your family has been victimized by being forced to view CCBR's graphic imagery, please complain to your city council and to police, describing what happened and the resulting harms, and email a copy of your complaints to ARCC. Even if the city or police don't respond or refuse to act, more complaints mean more pressure, and it builds a case for future regulation.

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.

Photo: Rally against the CCBR's Anti Abortion Caravan at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Credit: Sylvia McFadden/flickr