The question is on Facebook, splashed across the fronts of newspapers, and crackling through on the radio–just like last year and the year before that and the year before that, every media outlet is asking the question: what about the children? I’ve come to realize that that particular question isn’t going anywhere. We can explain how children aren’t traumatized by the pictures through countless personal stories (The day my little sister saw abortion pictures, When my little brother saw abortion pictures) and by pointing out that children have tender consciences that accept that there are injustices as long as people are fighting against them (Abortion told in pictures: do something, Mommy!). We can outline the best way to talk to children about abortion (classroom), and how to comfort them if they do come across the images. We can point out the inconsistency of caring about born children and shredding pre-born children (It’s all about the children), or just rant about the fact that people only seem to care about the innocence of children when their own views are being challenged in a remarkably effective way (Where are all the angry parents?). 

We can do all these things, and we have, but I think we may have missed the essential point. We have a choice: children can be frightened once by seeing an image of a decapitated, dismembered, and disemboweled child or they can be victimized for their whole lives by a society that cares nothing for human dignity and the most basic of human rights.

Past social reformers understood this. The parents of children in Great Britain during the early 1800s must not have been impressed to have their children exposed to the atrocities occurring in Jamaica and other parts of the world on the sugar cane plantations. After all, their children naturally would wonder why the value of refined sugar for their tea was placed above human lives. However, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and the other members of the Clapham Sect didn’t concern themselves with the innocence of the little British children or the feelings of their parents. After all, African children were dying to satisfy their sweet tooth. Children shouldn’t have had to know about it because it shouldn’t have happened, but it did and Wilberforce was more concerned with the world they would grow up in and the children that were dying than with their momentary shock and fear at hearing about and seeing these atrocities. 

Lewis Hine didn’t seem to have a large problem with ruining children’s days, either. At least, he put up large displays plastered with child labour images at town fairs, but maybe he didn’t expect to see any children there. Or, if he did think that children might chance across the pictures, perhaps he was more concerned with the fact that poor children were working long hours in dirty factories to provide more privileged children with silk ribbons and kid gloves to wear to the town fair. It was a shame, truly it was, that children going to the fair were assaulted with images of other children, dirty, tired, and mutilated by machines. But wouldn’t it have been a greater shame if the injustice of child labour hadn’t been exposed and these same children were forced to inherit a world that valued production and profit more than childhood?

The Civil Rights movement is yet another example of a movement willing to sacrifice the innocence of children. The images splashed across newspapers and people’s television sets of African American men, women, and children being brutalized by police men and regular citizens just for standing up for their rights must have been terrifying. That children were subject to these images was an injustice, indeed. Was it a greater injustice, though, than the one happening to African American children, the treatment they had been subject to ever since their ancestors had been snatched from the beautiful African coast? A greater injustice than the fact that southern white children were being taught lies about their fellow human beings? 

When a group of people sets out to effectively change society children are inevitably affected in some way. We see graphic images of the results of smoking on cigarette packages discarded on the sidewalk for anyone (even children) to pick up. We find graphic ads against drunk driving, drug abuse, texting and driving, etc. all around us. Children come across them–children are often confused and disturbed by them. But what is more important: children’s feelings, or children growing up thinking there are no harmful effects involved with smoking or drug abuse? Is a child victimized more when seeing an image of what happens in an accident caused by an impaired driver or when a child is actually killed by an impaired driver? 

Children shouldn’t have to see images of shredded pre-born children. Children shouldn’t have their dreams disturbed by images of shredded pre-born children. But children shouldn’t be victimized by becoming these images, nor should they be victimized by being forced to grow up in a society that kills people to solve problems. Children will always be affected by social justice campaigns, but when all is said and done, outraged parents need to ask themselves what is harming their children more: seeing violent images or being brought up in a society that supports the action that resulted in the image. Past social reformers made their decision, we have made ours, and paraphrasing the words of Lewis Hine: “Perhaps you are weary of [pictures of abortion]. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, [pictures of abortion] will be records of the past.”

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