Capitol Ideas

Making Abortion Graphic

By From the March 2012 issue

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I once met the late ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings on the American University campus, in Washington. I can't remember the occasion but I took the opportunity to ask him if the TV networks ever show those graphic pictures of aborted infants. No, they don't, he said. They put just about anything on TV, but make an exception in this case. It's obvious why. Images of dismembered infants tell us what is really involved. Therefore they hurt the "pro-choice" cause. It's not too much to say that support for abortion has been sustained, at least in part, by a conspiracy of silence; abetted by circumlocutions like "procedure," "reproductive freedom," and "clinic."

This year I decided to join the 39th annual March for Life, always held on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. A couple of days earlier I went to see Missy Smith, who lives nearby. In October 2010, she ran for D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and lost by a large margin to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the long-time incumbent. But as a candidate Missy Smith could run TV ads showing the abortion pictures. Two ads were shown a total of 250 times, she told me. Under federal law, TV stations can't censor the content of political ads paid for by federal candidates.

Missy Smith's campaign manager was Randall Terry, who started Operation Rescue in 1987. Initially, "Rescue" blocked access to abortuaries, but under the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances [FACE] Act, opponents of abortion must keep their distance. Randall Terry is now running for president against Barack Obama, and is showing some of these ads nationwide. David Lewis is doing the same in Ohio's 8th congressional district.

Missy Smith had an abortion when she was young, she told me, but now has four grown children and 11 grandchildren. What stirred her activism were news reports that a market for fetal body parts had emerged. Syndicated columnist Mona Charen was one of the first to report this, in 1999. In 2000, Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt told the newsman Chris Wallace that the sale of body parts was "inappropriate"—the weakest criticism possible.

TV stations ran Missy Smith's ads with disclaimers, sometimes including her phone number. She took some of those calls, thinking she might engage in a productive "dialogue." But the torrents of rage to which she was subjected made that impossible. "It was pretty demonic," she said.

Callers who dislike what they see in these ads should logically be the opponents of abortion. It is the abortionist, after all, who dismembers those small bodies. But often they support it, and their real goal is to "shoot the messenger." It's not the sight of blood that gives offense. TV channels show open-heart surgery, Missy Smith pointed out. What offends is the revelation that the supporters of abortion favor something that is indistinguishable from murder.

She also gave me a video detailing the much higher abortion rate among blacks, and claiming that Planned Parenthood (founded by eugenicist Margaret Sanger) deliberately opens new abortion clinics in inner city neighborhoods. The organization received $363 million from the Federal government in 2008-09, and performed 332,000 abortions. Blacks, 12 percent of the population, account for about 35 percent of the abortions in America—about five times the white rate. More than 50 percent of all black pregnancies are "terminated."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was once an anti-abortion activist. But he changed his mind when he ran for president and saw that a coalition with feminists would be more remunerative. That illogical coalition lives on. Feminists provide the rationale ("women's rights") for the policy that blacks vote for that reduces the number of blacks.

I hadn't gone far toward the march on the Mall before my legs gave out. The weather? "Wintry mix." I needed to sit down so I went inside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, where D.C. cases are tried. It's next to the federal courthouse, a nostalgic venue for ancient scribes like myself, who recall the Watergate hearings there. That was a different time, when it was conservatives who wanted to shoot the messenger.

I headed straight for the coffee shop in the Moultrie basement. The entire courthouse—corridors, hallways, benches—seemed to be teeming with black people: defendants, witnesses, jurors. The few whites looked to me suspiciously like lawyers. I knew I wouldn't make it all the way to the march. My wife did, though, and told me later that few blacks were present.

Two blocks away, on Pennsylvania Avenue, a huge display showed more of those graphic abortion pictures. Arms, hands, and tiny fingers placed above U.S. coins showed the scale. Billed as the Genocide Awareness Project, it is an initiative of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. (Google "GAP abortion" to see them.) They are putting up these displays on college campuses around the country.

Included was a 2002 quote from Barack Obama while he was in the Illinois legislature. He vowed to oppose the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, then being debated, because "it would create one more burden on women, and I can't support that."

WHAT'S THE ARGUMENT HERE? There's only one way to get pregnant and it's a woman's prerogative to say "no." A rejected man who responds by using force can be charged with rape. If denying a woman access to an abortion at the last minute is "one more" burden, what are the others? But yes, it's a complex issue. Dick Retta, who was recently charged under the FACE Act for holding signs outside clinics, tells me how often boyfriends accompany (propel?) the women who are heading for a (reluctant?) abortion. The real issue here is the progressive deterioration of Christian culture.

The GAP display was extremely effective. The article about the march in the Washington Post next day led with a quote from a young woman who said when she was 14 she "didn't quite know what it meant to have an abortion. But after looking at graphic images of aborted fetuses in pamphlets handed out at a pre-rally conference back then, she understood and decided: She could never support abortion."

A woman on Pennsylvania Avenue, Leslie Sneddon, was handing out pamphlets and gave me one. The regional director for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform in New England, she told me that she had had four abortions before giving birth to two sons. She became a Catholic through seeing Mother Angelica on TV.

A few minutes earlier a car had stopped on Pennsylvania Avenue and the female driver was furious about the display. What had bothered her? Leslie Sneddon told me that the woman was "just very angry at the pictures and the fact that little children would have to see them. Our experience has shown that sometimes people who are angry are usually angry at themselves for not realizing what it is they support! Some may have participated in an abortion and are angry because they are now confronted with the reality."

Others may be complicit in friends' abortions; or may be Christian or otherwise pro-life and realize they should be doing more about it. The need to protect children is often invoked, Mrs. Sneddon said. But a man who walked by with several small children looking at the pictures said that he wasn't concerned because the pictures were "the truth."

Gregg Cunningham, the executive director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, tells an interesting story in his latest newsletter. He spoke to a conference in London sponsored by Christian Concern. But he soon found that one speaker representing a "supposedly pro-life organization opposes the use of abortion imagery in abortion education." Why? They would never be invited back into the schools as guest lecturers if they showed those horrid pictures! But the exchange between them continued, and eventually at least some timid pro-life Brits were persuaded to be more courageous.

"We cannot fight abortion by covering it up," says Gregg Cunningham. He's right about that.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).