Matt C. Abbott
The church and graphic abortion images
By Matt C. Abbott
March 8, 2013

Are church employees (Catholic and Protestant) hindering pro-life activism?

Well, yes, at least in one respect, writes Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. And it has to do with the use of graphic abortion images.

I asked Father Pavone to comment on a March 6 news release from the Thomas More Society, a version of which is excerpted below (click here to read the news release in its entirety):
    On March 4, Chicago's Thomas More Society petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn a Colorado state court decree barring Denver pro-lifers from 'displaying large posters or similar displays depicting gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies in a manner reasonably likely to be viewed by children under 12 years of age attending worship services ... at plaintiff church.'

    The church, Denver's St. John's Church in the Wilderness [Episcopal], was picketed several years ago by Ken Scott, Clifton Powell, and others during an outdoor Palm Sunday procession for having 'go[ne] astray from the original teachings of the Bible' and for 'supporting abortion.'

    The 'gruesome images' ban was entered in a lawsuit for private nuisance and civil conspiracy filed by the church after Scott and Powell held graphic signs featuring photos of aborted human beings on a public sidewalk across the street from the outdoor procession. This upset parishioners, including children, as they processed on the opposite sidewalk. Scott and Powell had given prior notice of their protest, and they did not enter the church, go onto church property, or disturb the services inside the church where their protest couldn't be heard. No violence, trespass, physical obstruction, or criminal conduct occurred. Police were present, and neither Scott, nor Powell, nor any other protester was cited for any noise or other law violation.

    Despite recognizing that the 'gruesome images' ban was a content-based restriction on speech, the Colorado's Appellate Court upheld it as "narrowly tailored" to serve a 'compelling government interest,' namely, 'protecting children from exposure to certain images of aborted fetuses and dead bodies.' Colorado's Supreme Court denied review, but Chief Justice Michael Bender and Associate Justice Allison Eid dissented....

    Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of Thomas More Society, said, 'We are very hopeful that the Supreme Court will hear our appeal and put an end to such persistent efforts by government officials to wield the censor's scissors to suppress vital pro-life speech. Photos are anathema to pro-abortion advocates because they expose the grim truth that abortion is both repulsive and grisly. If America insists on abortion rights, it must face up to these ugly results.'

Father Pavone's comments are as follows:
    It doesn't take years of law school to see the unconstitutional nature of this Colorado decree, especially given the fact that free speech is protected precisely because the speaker often needs protection from those who will try to shut down his message because it is disturbing.

    Not only do these complaints not hold up on legal grounds, but they do not hold up on psychological grounds, either. Child psychiatrist Dr. Philip Ney, for instance, has related the fact that when children saw their city being bombed in war, they were delighted at the display of fire and smoke in the sky until they saw the distressed reaction of their parents. Likewise, he says, it is not abortion images that traumatize children, but rather the quality of the reaction of the parents, who on the one hand can lovingly reassure their children, or on the other can put them into a distressed panic.

    Likewise, psychologist Dr. Theresa Burke, an expert in trauma and the founder of Rachel's Vineyard, the world's largest ministry for healing after abortion, has spoken and written about the same theme, pointing out that people often oversimplify and exaggerate how these images are going to 'traumatize' people.

    The need to disturb the public with graphic images of abortion, furthermore, is simply another incarnation of a longstanding history of social reform in which reformers have disturbed the public with images of slaves in the slave ships, or children in sordid working conditions in mines and factories, or holocaust victims, or the damage smoking does to the lungs, or the disastrous results of drunk driving. The list goes on and on. One cannot rationally ban 'gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies' without striking a blow against the entire history of social reform.

    And that's the point about the use of these images. It is not a question of whether we like to use them. It is a question of whether history teaches us any principles of social reform, and whether there is reason to think that the pro-life movement is somehow exempt from those principles.

    There's another interesting twist to this story, and it is the connection between the objections and 'worship services' and 'parishioners.' I commissioned a survey some years ago among pro-life leaders and activists about the impact of graphic images of abortion. Consistently across the board, no matter what age, gender, level of leadership or degree of experience the respondent had, the responses indicated the view that graphic images were necessary to gain victory over abortion, and in fact had played a decisive role in getting the person active in the pro-life movement to begin with.

    There was one exception, however, to the pattern: those who were employed by Catholic dioceses in the United States. This group was out of step with every other segment of pro-life leaders and activists, inasmuch as they did not show majority support for the use of these images. [Emphasis added]

    The reasons for this are not immediately evident. But anecdotal evidence continues to mount among those who display these images that there is much less opposition in secular and pro-abortion settings (campuses, for instance) than there is in religious, pro-life settings.

    One sad and disturbing thought this brings to my mind is the well-known story of the pastor of the church near the railroad tracks on which the trains carried victims to the concentration camps. When worshippers complained about the screams of the victims, they were told, 'Sing a little louder.' Worship is supposed to help us face the truth; it is not meant to be a refuge from the truth.

I agree with Father Pavone on the use of graphic abortion images. While there may be situations in which the use of such images is not appropriate, as a general rule, I support their use. It is particularly disappointing, though not surprising, to hear about the lack of support among employees of Catholic dioceses. (Yes, the church mentioned above is Episcopal, not Catholic, but this in no way invalidates Father's point that many Catholics are not very supportive of pro-life activism – and they should be.)

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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