Is Public Graphic Imagery A Good Pro-Life Strategy?

One of the first things that came up when I took over my campus Pro-Life club was that a Pro-Life group wanted to partner with us to hold a short workshop on their strategies. The group was the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR), a group based out of Calgary that focuses heavily on displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses in public. I didn’t have a strong opinion on the topic, and in a spirit of curiosity and academically charitable attitude, I welcomed them to share their perspective.

What's this person seeing? Maybe a graphic Pro-Life display.
What’s this person seeing? Maybe a graphic Pro-Life display.

About 20 or so people came out to the workshop where there were presentations from CCBR as well as another more politically focused group, The Wilberforce Project. The position of CCBR as explained was pretty simple: some historical civil rights movements have used graphic imagery of people who have been abused or killed to effective spread awareness. Common examples include the Holocaust or racial segregation in America.

If you ever have a chat with someone who is from CCBR, or who just strongly supports them, it’s likely you’ll hear the word “effective” used with emphasis. That’s the keyword. The effectiveness of the approach was a major thrust of the presentation at my university, and that is a laudable goal. Any activist group should put considerable thought into designing effective methods. The presentation given had plenty of personal testimonies of how viewing the images had changed people’s minds about the issue to demonstrate just how effective this strategy is.

There are some who disagree with this strategy being applied to abortion in North America, though. At the annual March For Life here in Edmonton, a yearly Pro-Life rally at the legislature, the local Roman Catholic bishops refused to participate until they were in recent years assured that it would not involve graphic imagery. Some of the reasons people object to the practice are concern over disrespecting human remains and traumatizing children or those who have experienced miscarriages. These are legitimate concerns, but groups like CCBR have a ready response: this strategy is effective, and the end of saving lives justifies the upsetting means.

In response to detractors, the FAQ section (some graphic imagery in that link) of the CCBR website begins responding to the question “I just feel like the approach does more harm than good” with the following:

Feelings aren’t enough. You need to provide evidence for making that bold claim, especially in light of the evidence of changed minds, babies saved, and men and women brought to repentance all as a result of graphic images.

There was one thing that stuck out to me as an obvious question at the end of the presentation, though. As someone who studies science full-time, I’m a big fan of designing effective methods for achieving goals, but I’m also aware of the evidence needed to demonstrate a successful method. Personal stories can be compelling, but don’t make great empirical evidence. At the end of the presentation I had to ask the fellow presenting from CCBR, “is there any hard data on how successful this strategy is?”

The answer was pretty disappointing. The presenter told me there was some data somewhere from a particular group that had performed a survey sometime, but couldn’t give any exact reference. Despite looking, I have not been able to locate any such data. If it does exist, one would think it would be proudly displayed everywhere by groups that support the use of graphic imagery. Instead, all that is used to support the use of graphic imagery is personal anecdotes. That should raise some pretty big alarm bells for anyone with a decent science education.

A lot of hard data supports the hypothesis that graphic tobacco packaging like this is effective at deterring smokers
A lot of hard data supports the hypothesis that graphic tobacco packaging like this is effective at deterring smokers

There is hard data for other the use of graphic imagery for other topics, such as tobacco use. For example, the WHO bulletin The Impact of Pictures On The Effectiveness of Tobacco Warnings includes data from several studies to demonstrate that using graphic images on tobacco product packaging did not have detected adverse side-effects, effectively made people think about the health risks of tobacco, and caused an increase in motivation to quit smoking. Graphic imagery on tobacco product packaging is an effective strategy to decrease tobacco use, and we have the data to show that. CCBR does not have anything like that sort of data for their strategy.

To be fair, graphic abortion imagery being an effective strategy is an entirely reasonable hypothesis. We have data for the use of graphic imagery for topics like tobacco use, and that data shows it is effective for those topics. We also have quite a few personal testimonies of people whose minds have been changed due to viewing graphic abortion imagery. So maybe graphic imagery can be an effective tool to change peoples’ minds about abortion as well. That’s a reasonable hypothesis. The problem is that it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that it’s a “proven effective method.” The data just isn’t there.

In fact, consider an alternative hypothesis that is also reasonable. Unlike tobacco, the topic of abortion is a highly polarized and socially contentious issue. The social tension is so high that it can be difficult to get people who disagree to be willing to have a productive conversation about it. When Pro-Life groups use public graphic imagery, many people report being disgusted and being less willing to engage in thoughtful conversation with someone with an opposing view. Therefore, the use of graphic imagery is not effective because it destroys what the Pro-Life cause needs most: honest public engagement and thoughtful conversation about abortion. Graphic imagery does more harm than good in this case.

That is also a reasonable alternative hypothesis. There isn’t hard data to support it, but there is as much data for the CCBR hypothesis: general principles and personal anecdotes.

Trying to be right is a good goal, but a good general rule is that it’s more important to be honest. Sometimes there just isn’t enough data to prove a point either way, and that seems to be the case here. If graphic imagery is truly an effective method for Pro-Life people to use, then the end must be worth more than the harm it does. But what if it isn’t?

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