Freedom to Frighten

By Anna  Coughlan, Advocacy & Communications Intern, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Content warning: mention of gore, some external links visually depict gore and are marked with specific warnings.

A couple weeks ago, I was walking back to my dorm after my statistics class at George Washington University. My only plans for the rest of the day were to take a nap, update my Pinterest “Post-Apocalyptic Femme Punk” mood board, and resolutely pretend that homework doesn’t exist. But I realized while waiting at the crosswalk of 23rd and H that I would instead have a far more exciting opportunity—the chance to grapple with an anxiety attack. What a treat!

A huge semi-truck pulled up to the stoplight, with a banner image on its trailer at least 10 feet by 30 feet wide of anti-choice manipulative, graphic imagery and the rallying cry “PLANNED PARENTHOOD SELLS BABY PARTS” emblazoned across the side.

I felt my heart freeze when I first saw it. As a vehemently pro-choice woman, did this change my opinion about the morality of abortion access? Not at all—though that’s exactly what this semi-truck hoped to do. In fact, when the vast majority of abortions happen during the first trimester, the most common abortion procedures actually bear no resemblance to these images. But as someone with an anxiety disorder and a major fear of blood and gore, did it send me into a terrible panic attack, being caught off-guard by these pictures? Oh hell yes it did.

In all likelihood, the image I saw came from the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), an anti-choice group that publicizes numerous photos and videos alleged to depict abortion procedures and fetuses. (Content warning: Links display graphic images hosted on the CBR site). Their goals are simple: to induce fear, shock, and shame.

According to this site’s rules, the public posting of these graphic images by anyone is fair game Some state-level laws have put minor circumstantial restrictions on the display of graphic images of aborted fetuses, such as a local Colorado ordinance banning their display only during the hours that church is in session, after several children became severely upset and frightened at the images. However, in other instances courts have protected these anti-choice protesters.

This brings me to two points. First, many of these images may be misleading. As mentioned before, the vast majority of abortions occur in the first trimester, and would not resemble these photographs in the slightest. Moreover, there’s no evidence to indicate that these photos depict an aborted fetus. At the end of the first trimester, a fetus measures on average between 3 and 4 inches, and cannot survive independently – though the images used by CBR would seem to imply otherwise. One prime example comes to mind from a recent uproar after “journalist” David Daleidan stole a personal image of Alexis Fretz’s stillborn son, inaccurately claimed it was a picture of an aborted fetus, and featured the image in his shoddy would-be expose of Planned Parenthood.

Second, and most important, can we just talk about how immoral and underhanded it is to display these pictures? The creators of these images know that they will make you uncomfortable and upset. They know that the pictures will keep children up with nightmares, that they will induce panic attacks, that they will make women who have had or are considering seeking an abortion feel guilty, ashamed, and disturbed. They know all of this, and they prey specifically on these feelings. They wanted me to react the way I did—but unfortunately for the anti-choicers behind that truck, I’m firmly grounded in the real facts and will never waiver in my pro-choice values.

So yes, I’m mad. And now I’m armed with the knowledge that I could legally Photoshop a shock-mongering picture depicting these anti-choice protestors as a gruesome, nightmarish Alien-style monster trying to destroy my constitutional right to seek reproductive healthcare. I could make it creepy and terrifying, in order to advance my political agenda.

But I won’t do that.

Because it’s an awful thing to do.


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