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Accessed on October 01, 2016 - 9:58:11

Empathy, photography, and perception: Thoughts on the public display of graphic abortion images

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Jan 20, 2016

News photographers know we have trouble seeing the humanity in victims of violence. It is all too easy to dehumanize the people we live alongside, let alone the dead we have never known. This is why we have the old trick of putting a child's shoe or a teddy bear in the foreground of a picture of a war zone or scene of natural disaster. If there's a corpse, they are photographed being held or mourned over by loved ones. Or a single, humanizing detail is photographed—a bracelet on an outflung arm, a fringe of scarf across a face. These details help us to see ourselves or our loved ones in the pictured victim. We, who wear clothing, who tuck our children in at night with their own favorite stuffed toys, who love our favorite baubles, see first ourselves before we know how to see the other. It is our knowledge of our own subjectivity that reminds us that the other is also a subject, rather than merely an object.

There's a mercy and a ruthlessness in contextualizing the victims of violence or disaster in this way. The mercy is in sparing the already-traumatized the grotesqueness of the manner of death. In any large audience there will be those who have lost loved ones to violence, and who will see in any graphic depiction only their own loved one’s pain and the cruelty of the world that drives some to despair.

The ruthlessness is in not allowing the rest of us to gain the distance of disgust, insisting instead on drawing us to see our common humanity through symbols and contexts we can relate to. As fans of horror movies know, the more graphic and over-the-top the gore, the easier it is for an audience to detach from it, to view it not as something touching on themselves, but as something unreal with no emotional resonance. Those surrounded by scenes of real violence often detach in a very similar way in order to function in those environments.

As the March for Life approaches, debate has reignited over the use of graphic abortion photos at the March and in other public contexts. The arguments against are varied, but include arguments against exposing the vulnerable—children, abortion survivors, women who have lost infants—to these traumatic images, and arguments that such pictures are disrespectful to the dignity of the deceased children whose bodies are so displayed.

The loudest argument in favor is utilitarian—it comes down to a belief that these pictures are effective, and that we cannot afford to lose any effective tool in the fight against the evil of abortion. Some also argue that the best tribute to the victims of abortion possible is to use their images to show the humanity of the unborn and the reality of abortion, in hope that the truth might lead to other children being spared.

I don’t want to disparage the men and women who hold this position honestly and sincerely, but I question the assumptions behind the arguments in favor of the use of graphic abortion images. They assume that looking at pictures of corpses, of victims of violence, will cause men and women who do not presently value the unborn to see the humanity of these tiny victims. They believe that the humanity, the personhood, the subjectivity of the fetus is self-evident from his or her body alone, even—perhaps especially—when it is bloody and torn.

I question whether this is true, whether it is not putting cart before the horse.

In my opening, I discussed the strategies photographers use to emphasize the humanity of victims. Unfortunately, pictures of corpses seem only to touch the hearts of people who already believe that those pictures depict people. The use of pictures to humanize the abused depends on the viewer seeing something they can relate to and empathize with in the picture, and news photographers go to great pains to frame their pictures to offer the viewer the context and detail necessary for that kind of identification of the self with the pictured victim, identifying the victim as “another self” or subject.

But how can we do this with the unborn? Especially in the early stages when the resemblance to fully-developed persons is not immediately strongly obvious, what is it in these images that the viewer can immediately see and use to recognize another self? Those of us who believe already that the fetus is a person with dignity—a subject, and not an object to be disposed of—need no further contextualization, so perhaps we are slow to see the omission. But whether it is what we intend or not, the presentation of graphic images on posters, billboards, trucks, or signs might almost be ideally designed for the opposite of their intended purpose—they remove context when it is most needed. Just as pornography and other exploitative uses of the human body show too little rather than too much, so graphic images of the unborn—small body parts, torn and shredded, burned and broken, reduced by violence to meat and cartilage—show the viewer far too little of the human person, the life and growth and selfhood so violated.

Should we hide away the evidence of the violence of abortion then? Not necessarily. These images have their place in books and websites that seek to document the truth for those moved to seek it out. I also strongly believe that there are private contexts where such images may be appropriately or effectively shared, within the context of their humanity, giving the details of the origins of the pictures and the histories of the people depicted so far as they can be known. Who was this person? Where were they found? How was the picture taken? What became of their remains? Was he or she given a name? What effect have they had on others, in life or death? Anything that gives the person depicted the dignity of their own particularity, however slim the information available, is helpful in restoring the dignity obscured by violence.

The best reason to strive to help others see the humanity, the personhood, of the unborn lost to abortion is not, in the end, to win an argument. The best reason to avoid dehumanizing usage of the graphic images is not that they are ineffective as arguments for many people, or that they are traumatizing for others. The best reason is because the unborn are our brothers and sisters. They are persons. And in our striving to end the evil of abortion, we should not fall into the trap of treating the victims of abortion as generalities and objects in an argument, rather than as “other selves” of equal individual worth and dignity.