By Elizabeth Broadbent
I spent my college years prochoice enough to abort a zygote, but not cool with killing an actual fetus. Most people I knew felt that way. But every year, during the last week in January (change this to whenever pro-life week is, I can’t remember), the zealots came out. They parked themselves in the green space right across the street from my dorm. The university roped them off so no one would molest them. From behind the rope, they handed out pamphlets. They brandished signs about abortion stilling beating hearts and killing babies. And mostly spectacularly, the activists hummed around a several central images, billboard sized, of bloody, dismembered, aborted fetuses.
I had to walk past these people every day to go to lunch.
The pictures didn’t make me feel less like a women should take Plan B if the condom broke. Nor did they invoke a dialogue about life beginning at conception. Instead, they assaulted us with images of death. We told them, of course, that we didn’t appreciate it.
“This is what abortion does,” they said to us. We actually started a petition to make them take the photographs down, a petition even some pro-life students signed. It went nowhere, of course, because of free speech laws.
Years later, I’m pro-life, but my views on the big bloody fetuses haven’t changed. Not only is it ugly. Not only does it fail to change minds – I’d argue it cements them. But I’ve had more time to think about my visceral reaction now, and I know what’s at the root of it. I object to those images of dead children not because they’re ugly, not because I’m not pro-life enough, but because they’re a desecration. Those pictures desecrate the life and death of an actual child. Who wants to be remembered in literal pieces? Who wants their own dismemberment waved around for a political cause? If their own mothers do not mourn them, we do. But we can mourn them without bearing witness to their grisly demise.
The same applies to Fr. Pavone and the Priests for Life Mass held the Sunday before the presidential election. Fr. Pavone said Mass with a second-trimester aborted fetus on the altar, and urged fellow Catholics to vote against the pro-choice Hillary Clinton and for nominally pro-life Donald Trump. This act was featured in a life Facebook video. Priests for Life confirmed that it happened in a room a spokeswoman says is sometimes used for Mass in their Staten Island headquarters. “Today I am showing him to you,” said Fr. Pavone, “because in this election we have to decide if we will allow this child killing to continue in America or not.”
Ed Mechmann, head of public affairs for the Archdioscese of New York, objected to the Mass on the same grounds I do: “What about that baby as a human being? … To use her body in this way is to treat that poor lost little boy or girl as an object to be used – which is the antithesis of love – and not as a brother or sister to be mourned.”
When we brandish these images of aborted children, or worse, brandish the aborted children themselves, we use them as objects rather than mourning them as people. They become a kind of graphic violence in themselves. Instead of showing the personhood the pro-life movement demands aborted children possess, these grisly images reduce them to things used to promote a cause. No matter that the cause is the life of their own brothers and sisters. Dignity demands a drawn curtain over the results. It’s enough to tell us that children were torn limb from limb. We don’t need to desecrate a child’s body to prove it.
If the pro-life movement is serious about stopping abortion, they will begin to treat the bodies of the dead with respect and reverence. They will recognize every aborted child as worthy of dignity – even the ones in the billboard-sized photos they so love to brandish. Even the ones they place on the altar.