Is it rude to display gruesome images of aborted fetuses — or of dead or dying animals?

I’ve often seen comments defending people’s right to display images of aborted fetuses, but condemning such people as rude or fanatical. Similar arguments can be made with regard to animal rights advocates who similarly display images of dead animals, or animals being killed or otherwise mistreated.

I don’t share the bottom-line views of either group of protesters, and I agree that such tactics may often be counterproductive. But I think the condemnation of the tactics are generally overstated. I wrote about the free speech aspect of this in my unsuccessful petition for Supreme Court review in the Scott v. Saint John’s Church in the Wilderness case, but I think what I said there also helps explain why such advocacy is more broadly legitimate (again, setting aside the question whether it’s effective). Here’s the essence of my argument, adapted to the question of manners rather than of law.

Even some abortion-rights commentators acknowledge that much of the public support for abortions stems from the natural human reaction, “out of sight, out of mind.” For instance, Laurence Tribe — a leading supporter of abortion rights — wrote in his “Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes,”

Many [people], who can readily envision the woman and her body, who cry out for her right to control her destiny, barely envision the fetus within that woman and do not imagine as real the life it might have been allowed to lead. For them, the life of the fetus becomes an … invisible abstraction.

A born baby is visible, and leaves a visible body if it is killed. Fetuses are invisible while they are developing in the womb, and they are generally disposed of quickly after an abortion, so they remain unseen even then.

Those who display the pictures of aborted fetuses believe that the way to portray what they see as the brutality and inhumanity of abortion — and the personhood of the fetus — is to show exactly what the abortion produces. Words, especially words on a sign glimpsed by a passerby, cannot effectively capture that. A photograph can.

Gruesome images often reflect gruesome deeds. One powerful way of opening people’s eyes to what the speaker sees as cruelty is by showing them pictures of the results of that cruelty — pictures that are often gruesome.

Photographs of lynchings bring home to viewers the vileness of the crime. Depictions of the dead and near dead from Nazi concentration camps made vivid what was otherwise hard to fully grasp. Images of those butchered in a war crime, or even killed in “ordinary” war, can be powerful calls for justice or for peace.

Photographs of the horribly ill can illustrate what a speaker thinks is shameful lack of funding for treatment, prevention, or research. Animal rights activists show gruesome images of animals to illustrate what they see as the inhumanity of factory farming, or of keeping animals for meat altogether. A photograph of a woman who has bled to death from an illegal abortion could be used to argue for keeping abortion legal.

Many viewers might disagree with the claim that these images are evidence of evil actions. Many might think, for instance, that the deaths depicted by the images are the result of reproductive freedom, just and necessary war, sensible medical funding decisions, or the permissible consumption of animals. But whether or not these images persuade the viewer, it’s not rude to try to use such images to persuade.

Photographs, of course, are not syllogisms. Photographs of awful things attempt to awaken viewers’ consciences with an appeal to humans’ most basic moral and emotional reactions. The photographs are not rationalistic debate. They would not be at home in a university economics or philosophy department.

Yet how many people’s opinions about abortion, animal rights, or even pacifism stem entirely from rationalistic debate? Much of what we believe comes not just from logic but from experience — from what we have seen, and from the visceral moral reactions that this seeing has aroused. Photographs, even of gruesome things, are unparalleled in their ability to make us see things that we otherwise might have ignored.

Again, these aren’t images that persuade me (either on the anti-abortion side or on the animal rights side). They are images I don’t personally like. But I can’t condemn as fanatical or rude those who think that there’s no substitute for showing what is actually happening.

(Note that some have argued that some fetus images are misleading because they show aborted or miscarried fetuses at a gestational age considerably greater than that in the typical abortion. That’s a separate topic, which I won’t discuss here.)

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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