Many questions have been asked around the use of abortion victim photography (AVP). For example, don’t the images just make people angry? What if children see them? What about women who have experienced miscarriage? I posed these questions myself after seeing an abortion video during a CCBR presentation at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. Now, years later, I’ve answered them countless times to people who wonder the same. I also clearly remember the first time that someone brought up another objection:
“Don’t you think the images disrespect the dead?”
Having never previously wondered this myself, I had to process it. It has always been clear to me that the intent behind showing AVP is to end what is causing AVP. Foundational to these efforts is an underlying truth: that the pre-born are human beings and that abortion kills them. If they were merely cells, their removal wouldn’t be a moral issue. If abortion didn’t kill, it would be a matter between a woman and her doctor.
The questioner obviously understood the human rights argument; he referred to aborted children as “the dead.” There was no need to convince him that abortion is wrong; his concern was mainly with the method to end it. So does it show disrespect to the victims of abortion to show pictures of their dehumanization?
To disrespect one, by definition, is to lack the regard that is due unto him or her; in other words, to think very little of the person. As such, the action of showing AVP is not disrespectful to the children who perished and are portrayed in the pictures. In fact, it is precisely the respect we know we owe them that convicts us to show AVP. And because we think so much of these tiny children, we want the world to know what happens to them: an injustice that continues as long as it is invisible.
Some have asked if it doesn’t further dehumanize the pre-born when we show them in the horrible manner they were killed. The tragic reality is that to most people, the pre-born are already subhuman because of terminology such as embryo, fetus, tissue, bunch of cells, or even products of conception. To their surprise, an early embryo can look recognizably human, especially in contrast with the inhumane nature of abortion. Thus, rather than disrespect the dead, the pictures allow us to notice something we know deep down inside: the pre-born are human beings too.
This is similar to how British citizens were shocked out of complacency and made to acknowledge the humanity of the slaves displayed in the images against the 18th century transatlantic slave trade. When images were created out of porcelain, on brooches, posters, and coins, was it disrespectful to show an African man with his shackled hands held heavenward?
When in 1955 the tortured body of Emmett Till was displayed for Chicago—and all of America—to see, was it disrespectful to the deceased 14-year old boy who’d been murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi? Was it disrespectful to the dead when General Dwight D. Eisenhower called journalists, photographers, and politicians to take pictures and come look at the piles of corpses inside the horrific Ohrdurf concentration camp? And, to name one more example, when in 2015 a Syrian boy washed onto a Turkish beach, should the media not have taken pictures and shared them for all to see his plight?
The images of each of these people have opened the eyes of countless others to their mistreatment and dehumanization. More importantly, they have spurred on those who were left behind to fight evils otherwise beyond our imagination. Perhaps that makes these deaths somewhat less in vain. Perhaps that’s among the best such pictures can accomplish.
In fact, the greatest respect one can show to the dead, if they fell victim to an injustice, is to ensure that deaths like theirs won’t happen again. As my colleague Jonathon Van Maren explains in his new book Seeing is Believing, AVP continues to do just that.
By uncovering the truth, we visually tell the story of those we’ve already lost. Countless testimonies speak to the power of these images: not only do they honour the lives of aborted children, they also save the lives of currently endangered children. The way we see it, there’s no greater way to pay our last respects to Canada’s tiny victims of abortion.