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Traumatic Images Polarize the Abortion Debate

Traumatic Images Polarize the Abortion Debate

With the leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade, campaigns to make abortion legal or illegal will ramp up across the U.S. This means that Americans are going to encounter lots and lots of pictures of fetal remains. 

"In the United States, it's almost impossible for Americans to get through their lives without confronting abortion imagery," Dr. Jennifer Holland, a scholar who studies the history of gender and sexuality in the U.S., told me. 

Outside clinics, on billboards, on pamphlets — images of fetal remains are so common as to be background noise. They have a central role in the anti-abortion movement in America and can be found in their external and internal literature. If only Americans could see what abortion was, the argument goes, then they'd ban abortion in a heartbeat. 

This is by no means a universally agreed-upon strategy within anti-abortion circles: promoting images of fetal remains is sometimes viewed as morally impermissible or harmful to the optics of the cause, but it's still acknowledged as a powerful tactic. 

Anti-abortion imagery of fetal remains is often based on misinformation or used to create misinformation. It utilizes the trauma of a violent image to target people on the edge, and reduces complicated medical and ethical arguments to a picture.

The shock value serves a dual purpose: to make viewers jump from abstract conversation about pregnancy to an emotional appeal, and also to create the association between abortion and dismemberment. But anti-abortion imagery of fetal remains is often based on misinformation or used to create misinformation. It utilizes the trauma of a violent image to target people on the edge, and reduces complicated medical and ethical arguments to a picture.

The fetus in space

The sociologist Dr. Lisa Wade has explained how one of the first widely disseminated images of a fetus, on the cover of Life magazine in April 1965, revolutionized how the public thought of pregnancy. Photographer Lennart Nilsson's pictures of a fetus floating  – as if in space – "made it possible for people to visualize the contents of a woman's womb independently of her body. Suddenly, the fetus came to life. It was no longer just something inside a woman, no longer even related to a woman; it was an individual with a face, a sex, a desire to suck its thumb. Once the fetus could be individualized, the idea that a woman and her fetus could have contrasting interests was easier to imagine."

"The vulnerability of Nilsson's subjects, free-floating in space, made it easier to portray fetuses as in danger," Dr. Wade writes. "There is power in visualization and its technological advance, and these images were a boon to the pro-life cause. Ironically, it was abortion that made these images possible." Nilsson's photographs, although they were initially sold as living fetuses, were of abortions. 

Outside of medical textbooks, there aren't many images of aborted fetuses. The source of much of the fetal imagery comes from John and Barbara Willke's Handbook on Abortion, published in 1972. John (a doctor) and Barbara (a nurse) had access to medical waste, and were convinced that photographing aborted fetuses and distributing the images would create momentum for the anti-abortion rights cause. These images have been reproduced thousands of times, and are even now still widely used and distributed by anti-abortion activists.

Other sources of fetal images include the Center for Biomedical Ethics, which charges a small fee for use on banners and billboards (as well as asking that customers pledge non-violence). These images sometimes come from outside the U.S., especially countries where regulation of medical waste is more lax, as well as from photographer Monica Migliorino Miller, who took photos of fetuses in dumpsters in the 80s and 90s, when U.S. regulation of medical waste was different from today. (Today, most clinics are required to store fetal remains separate from other forms of medical waste.)

Actual fetal remains as a rhetorical tactic have also historically been a part of the anti-abortion movement. Famously, members associated with Operation Rescue, a U.S. anti-abortion organization, handed former President Bill Clinton a fetus in a jar while he was out on a jog. 

The most recent source of fetal images comes from an organization called Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU). You may remember a few weeks ago when a bizarre story broke: a viral tweet of a photo of a woman sitting on a curb in D.C., saying people "are gonna freak out" when they hear about the five fetuses that police had taken from her fridge. The phrasing sounds like a frank admission from someone who had been caught red-handed — but actually, PAAU had called the police themselves. 

The story cannot be independently verified, but here is what they say happened. Two women from PAAU — Lauren Handy and Terisa Bukovinac — say they encountered a medical waste truck parked outside a D.C. abortion clinic. They claim that they convinced the driver to give them a box — a claim which the medical waste company not only denies but says was impossible — telling the driver that they would give the "dead babies" a funeral and burial.

The activists say they then took the box home, opened it, and claim to have found the remains of 115 abortions — 110 early term, and five which were more developed. They documented the entire process and asked a professional photographer to come down and document the fetal remains. They tried to get an independent medical examiner to examine the five later-term fetal remains, believing them to be illegally aborted, but were unable to. Via a lawyer, they arranged with the D.C. police to get the fetal remains picked up.

After the initial media frenzy, the pair held a press conference, announcing that they'd given first names to all of the fetal remains, held a Catholic funeral mass, and buried 110 of them. Images of the five later-term abortions were used as part of the press conference, and were widely disseminated in anti-abortion media, which claimed, without evidence, that they had been born alive and murdered. 

The shock doctrine

Logically analyst Emmi Conley, who researches terrorism and propaganda, told me that there are two reasons behind the use of shocking images. First, it's traumatizing to see human remains or an injury. This can create a trauma response – anger, fear, denial, and the need to soothe the shock. That trauma response can be used to push through an argument that might not stack up. Images can serve as a bridge between what she calls "lore" —  the narrative that's attached to a shocking photo — and the real world. 

It's traumatizing to see human remains or an injury. This can create a trauma response – anger, fear, denial, and the need to soothe the shock. That trauma response can be used to push through an argument that might not stack up.

"They trust that your gut reaction will fill in any gaps in the logic," she said. "It's really hard to look at a body or an injury — we have no choice but to very quickly go through all those heuristics as a sort of trauma response to the imagery, because it's really hard for us to deny that type of reaction."

While Conley finds it unlikely that the images, in this case, are going to convince anyone who already supports abortion rights to change their mind, she says that it could be extremely powerful for someone who's on the fence. She pointed out that doctors and pathologists see medical waste all the time, but the reason they're not shocked is the context — they are used to thinking about medical waste as a necessary byproduct of medical intervention. Context drives the interpretation of a shocking image. 

Dr. Holland explained that shocking images in anti-abortion circles often accompany arguments that flatten the difference between zygote, embryo, fetus, and baby. "The anti-abortion movement has generated ideas about medicine, biology, and psychology, and used these fetal images alongside those arguments to be the self-evident expressions of truth,” Dr. Holland said.

These arguments include the myth that the majority of people are traumatized by their abortions, which longitudinal studies have found to be untrue

This misleading context extends even to the law. Amelia Bonow, director of the abortion rights organization Shout Your Abortion, noted that arguments about fetal personhood are used to justify legislation that exposes patients to traumatizing images. "The concept of fetal personhood informs policy in bills that focus on cardiac activity and in restrictions such as mandatory ultrasound viewing."

"There's a little fudging around what images are the most compelling,” Dr. Holland said, “but they're paired with these odd sweeping arguments about when life begins." 

While PAAU did publish images and videos of the 115 fetal remains it claims to have found, selecting which fetuses featured in the campaign appears to have been strategic. Pictures of material from the five later terminations were published on Live Action, but images of the 110 earlier-term abortions were not. When I asked Handy and Bukovinac why the campaign was "Justice for the Five" rather than "Justice for the 115," they responded that it was a really tough decision to make. "My justification was [the 110] would never receive any kind of justice because they were legally aborted," Bukovinac said. 

Although the vast majority – 92.7 percent – of abortions occur within the first trimester, images of later terminations are most commonly found on anti-abortion rights banners and billboards. The actual appearance of fetuses (or, properly speaking, embryos) at that stage looks quite different.

Justice for the Five is a misinformation campaign

The members of PAAU understand the importance of fetal images  — what they call "victim imagery" — and frame it as part of a social justice cause to end abortion. The argument goes that we have a moral imperative to look at what's happening so that we can understand the suffering of the people involved. Although they know this imagery is traumatic, they feel it's necessary to display for the cause. 

"We look at past and current social justice movements and how victim imagery is used," Handy told me. "And so I don't think it is disrespectful to show victims of injustice, victims of the violence. We can look back at the Rwandan genocide and people who suffered under Belgium imperialism in Congo. Or we can even look at what's happening in Ukraine or the racial justice uprisings of 2020, because of the George Floyd video." 

Already, she said, the PAAU had seen results of publishing the graphic images. Handy told me, "The story of the babies being found in D.C. is one of [Florida Governor] Desantis' motivations for passing that 15-week abortion ban. We know Congress is being called to action. We know people who have been messaging us, seeing these images, saying that they were pro-choice, and now they're not."

Two main campaigns have been launched off the back of this project. The main objective is a campaign called #JusticeForTheFive, which attempts to pressure the D.C. medical examiner to conduct autopsies on the fetuses that Handy and Bukovinac took, because they suspect (again, without evidence) the fetuses were illegally aborted. 

When I spoke to them, I pointed out that they have two obstacles — first, they are a pressure group with stated goals, and there's video footage of them basically tampering with all of the evidence, so an objective analysis would be impossible. Secondly, there are plenty of circumstances where late-term abortion is ethically or medically necessary, and that an independent medical examiner wouldn’t be able to comment on an unknown patient’s needs by looking at fetal remains. 

"If we are proven wrong, and they were aborted according to D.C. law, I still believe it's an injustice," Handy told me. "This is from a pro-life perspective."

The second campaign targets the clinic, and the medical waste company that serves the clinic. A TikTok video from Live Action, the organization that PAAU worked with to publish the images, claimed that the Curtis Bay Medical Waste company "burns babies for electricity." Although they are attached to a biowaste electricity facility, Curtis Bay has had a policy on the books since at least 2017 that forbids their clients from using their services for fetal remains. This also isn’t the first time that Curtis Bay has been targeted — a 2019 anti-abortion rights campaign made similar accusations against the company.

Both Live Action and PAAU have targeted the clinic in the past. In 2014, Live Action used tactics reminiscent of Project Veritas, in which one of its members posed as a patient seeking an abortion, and filmed in secret the conversation she had with the doctor. She presented this video in a misleading context, suggesting that he advocated killing babies. 

And in a strange coincidence, Handy was arrested by the FBI for an attack on the same clinic on the same day the D.C. police came to pick up the fetal remains. In 2020, Handy, along with eight other activists, "forcefully entered [Washington Surgi-Clinic] and set about blockading two clinic doors using their bodies, furniture, chains, and ropes," according to the Department of Justice. This crime violates the Freedom of Access to Entries of Clinics Act, which carries penalties of up to $250,000 in fines and 10 years in prison in cases where the perpetrator is a repeat offender. Handy was indicted on March 30 of this year and pleaded not guilty. 

Violence and radicalization

When I spoke with Handy and Bukovinac, I asked if they were alright, considering they'd been through what they had spoken about as an incredibly traumatic experience. "I wouldn't say we're okay," Handy said. "We are definitely dealing with complex trauma." They spent the next half hour reliving the experience of digging through what they understood to be a kind of mass grave, vividly speaking about the details of the things they found.

I asked if at any point during the process whether they felt like they should stop. They told me that although they'd both felt like stopping. "We felt like we had to know,” Bukovinac said. 

Conley explained that it’s common for some extremist groups as part of the radicalization process to force themselves or recruits to view a stream of challenging images. 

"This is a self-traumatizing, self-radicalizing exercise," Conley said. "Collecting bodies, handling them, taking pictures of them, and then forcing yourself to go through it, no matter how grotesque, how disgusting, is an exercise in desensitizing yourself and devoting yourself to the cause. You have now been through this thing together. You've now seen these things together and traumatized your brains in the right way."

There have been violent and sometimes lethal attacks against abortion clinics and abortion doctors in the past – successful and attempted murders, bombings, and assaults. Clinics are often targeted with claims about killing babies, or even more heightened rhetoric of committing genocide. Dr. Holland explained that in the 80s and 90s, a "rash of anti-abortion violence" came from the Rescue Movement's desperation that abortion was legal, despite numerous challenges to its legality since Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973. 

"If you call this murder and you call this genocide, you have to treat it like that," she said. "It's a logical extension of that belief."

What does abortion look like?

The images of fetal remains removes focus from the women who choose to have abortions. Photographer Glenna Gordon, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, spoke about her project to instead take pictures of everything else in a politically-charged procedure – the clinics, the patients, the doctors, the protesters. 

"I wanted to show with these pictures how wildly different these propaganda pictures are from physical reality. Most people don't know what a fetus looks like, or what the medical reality of the procedure is like. I really wanted to show this contrast," Gordon said. "There is so much information out there that is purposely trying to confuse and emotionally manipulate women."

Conley argues that traumatizing images should instead be relegated to the margins: "We have a moral obligation not to look, actually. Whether you believe in fetal personhood or not," she says. "Sure, nothing will get done if people don't see the video, but also how often do we have to share a video of a person dying? That's a human being's last moment at that point; there's a point where it's voyeuristic and grotesque. Or, if you went to the hospital and took pictures of somebody's amputated arm – just because it's not a human person, it does not mean they did not have some biological attachment to it in some way, and maybe would feel weird about you using it for a political cause." 

We have a moral obligation not to look, actually. Whether you believe in fetal personhood or not.

In light of the increased rhetoric Americans are likely to see in the coming months about abortions, it’s worth remembering for everyone involved in this debate that many charity campaigns have stepped away from using victim images in their advertising — besides being ethically fraught, it turns out they just might not be very convincing to people who don’t already have their minds made up. 

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