September 9, 2003
On 3 September 2003, hours before the world learned of
the execution of Paul Hill in Florida, who shot dead an abortion
doctor in 1994, another story of the activities of pro-life
campaigners came to light here in the UK.
Two anti-abortion activists were tried for a public order
offence for publicly displaying a large, gruesome poster of
an aborted fetus of 21 weeks gestation. Some passers-by felt
offended by the picture, which the activists had displayed
while campaigning to be elected to the Welsh Assembly for
the Pro-Life Alliance. The police rolled up the picture and
arrested the campaigners. During the court case, the prosecution
claimed that the poster was insulting and harassing, while
the defence said that all they had done was mount a poster.
No doubt most people who feel 'insulted' or 'harassed' by
such images are opposed to the anti-abortion lobby, and support
a 'woman's right to choose' abortion. Indeed, it is a fair
guess that many who are against showing images of dead, mutilated
human fetuses have no objection to showing pictures of mangled
foxes torn apart by hounds - at least, as anti-hunt propaganda
rather than as trophies on hunting folks' mantelpieces. For
such people, the gruesome nature of the material is not the
issue - what matters is the moral view it implicitly conveys.
Is it possible, though, to disagree with the anti-abortion
lobby while being uneasy about the impulse to censor their
It certainly should be, and it is a shame that so many opponents
of the pro-lifers want such material banned. But apart from
issues of taste, which merit separate consideration, what
are the best arguments for keeping such images from public
view? To say that the picture insults and harasses is odd.
It is unclear in what way such pictures are insulting - unless
being exposed to views one disagrees with constitutes an insult.
And if talk of harassment is supposed to refer to causing
distress (actually it doesn't quite mean that, but let that
pass) then the obvious question is why the material should
cause distress. Could causing distress be legitimate? And
even if not, is that a reason for legally suppressing the
Of course, one reason for being distressed, at least for
the squeamish, is that the picture might seem aesthetically
disgusting. Moreover, even pro-life sympathisers might find
themselves upset by it, since it graphically reminds them
of a procedure they already regard as murderous. But that
surely isn't all there is to it. For other people, some of
whom will have had abortions themselves, must be thinking:
'I support the right to choose, and these horrible campaigners
are trying to make me feel shocked or guilty, or insinuate
that I support murder, and they shouldn't be allowed to do
In other words, they feel got at. But the important question
is whether they should feel shocked or guilty; it is simply
question-begging to condemn the display just because its (alleged)
purpose is to produce these reactions. If the pro-life people
are right, then horror of abortion is the only proper response
to their campaigning materials. Of course, there is also the
aesthetic issue, which I leave on one side; even a convinced
pro-lifer might object on grounds of taste or (in a sense)
decency, just as opponents of the death penalty might be against
showing graphic footage of actual executions.
But the central objection, I suspect, is that the display
is intended to shock in the furtherance of a cause they object
to. But then, how can this justify preventing the stuff from
being shown? Why should disapproval of a cause justify preventing
it from being defended in the way its supporters see fit?
It would be different if those opposed to such images could
show that their use was dishonest or misleading. And, in fact,
this claim is sometimes made, in that lurid pictures of late-aborted
fetuses give the impression that abortions are typically carried
out late in the second trimester or even in the third, when
in fact the majority is performed in the first.
One might add that if they were more honest, the pro-lifers
would display pictures of fetuses aborted after six weeks
gestation - the reason they don't being that they would have
much less shock value. There is something to this, but the
pro-lifers have an answer: second-trimester, and in rare circumstances
third-trimester abortions, can be legal in the UK. And such
abortions can indeed entail the mutilation of the fetus. So
how are the pictures misleading, concerning those abortions?
If we are to challenge the pro-lifers in a sensible way,
a different strategy is needed; one that has been obscured
by rhetoric and irrelevant protest on both sides. How, we
should ask, do lurid pictures contribute to the ethical case
against abortion? Even for those who consider abortion to
be the ending of a life, the question is not whether abortion
is killing but whether it is murder, which means wrongful
killing. This is not proven by lurid pictures, any more than
photos of mutilated foxes clinch the case against foxhunting.
But images can have tremendous power, influencing judgement
for strictly irrelevant reasons. The blood and dismemberment
assume a disproportionate significance, in comparison to genuine
moral concerns about causing pain and/or depriving an individual
of a future. Such psychological reactions are easily exploited
by image-makers, even in good causes.
If pictures of bloody, dismembered fetuses do mislead, then,
it is for this subtle reason, not because they strictly misrepresent
any facts. But even so, that seems a weak case for banning
the material - no better than the fact that such images upset
people. It is much better to say: yes, these pictures represent
something that many believe is morally repellent. So let's
rationally discuss whether it really is wrong. And then we
are led back to the seemingly interminable debate about abortion.
But that's another story.
Dr Piers Benn is lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial
This article was first published on www.spiked-online.com