Matt C. Abbott
July 7, 2006
Noted priests hold divergent views on abortion protests, photos
By Matt C. Abbott

As the summer 2006 Face the Truth Tour, organized by the Pro-Life Action League (in the interest of full disclosure, the League is a former employer of mine), gets underway in the Chicago area, I thought I would print essays from two noted priests, Father Michael Orsi and Father Frank Pavone, regarding the use of graphic abortion photos while protesting.

Father Orsi's essay reprinted with his permission is from the June 2004 edition of Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Father Orsi, who is not a proponent of the use of graphic abortion photos, serves as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, is a proponent of the use of such photos. His essay can be found here on PFL's Web site.

Food for Thought for Catholic Protesters

By Father Michael P. Orsi

Upon the arrival of our inaugural class at Ave Maria School of Law in August 2000, students formed a group called Lex Vitae (Law of Life). The purpose of the organization is to promote the cause of life in all its aspects. The organization is especially sensitive to Pope John Paul II's concerns as he enunciated them in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. One of the group's projects is to engage in peaceful prayer protests outside of local abortion clinics. I usually join the group at a Planned Parenthood site on Saturday mornings. For one hour we usually pray the entire rosary, sometimes do the Chaplet for Divine Mercy and complete the session with some appropriate hymns. Often times a student trained in sidewalk counseling will approach the cars entering the confines of the facility. Our behavior is reverent and respectful. As a matter of fact it is a spiritual experience that I look forward to each week. It is for me and I'm sure for the others present a testimony of our commitment to the cause of life and a witness to our faith. We have confidence in the power of prayer to overcome the evil being perpetrated on the unborn within the Planned Parenthood facility. Although the law school is training a cadre of young, vibrant and intellectually gifted lawyers and certainly some future legislators, there is the profound realization that the battle for life goes beyond the intellectual jousting of courtroom and legislative assemblies to the spiritual darkness that clouds human reason and hardens hearts. Thus, we take to heart the words of Jesus, "These demons can only be cast out with prayer and fasting."

From time to time, people from the area join us in prayer. Recently, a man came bearing a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is certainly apropos since she is the patroness of the Americas and our special intercessor for the pro-life cause. After a few months, however, he replaced the banner of Guadalupe with one displaying the mangled remains of an aborted fetus. At this point I became uneasy with the message being relayed to those entering the clinic. Are we there to witness the beauty of God's love and relying on the power of prayer to change hearts? Or are we there to cause revulsion? About a month later, the same gentleman brought a telescopic camera to the site. When I questioned him about it, he said that it was a successful weapon in dissuading women from having abortions. I asked him to stand somewhere else since that was a contradiction of our message. He refused. Moments later there was a face-off between the gentleman and a male escort hired by Planned Parenthood. The concentration on the prayers quickly turned a religious event into a hostile public confrontation. At this point I left the site and refused to return until the offensive poster and camera were removed.

There is no doubt that the gentleman is well meaning. He does want to save innocent life. The question, however, is on whose terms and how? I have no doubt that these methods may be successful in certain circumstances and forums. The graphic depictions of the human remains after an abortion procedure may cause some to pause. Might this be legitimate in legislative hearings or before judicial proceedings? No doubt these photos will make an impact on some. And, what of the use of cameras to intimidate those entering abortion facilities? I have no doubt that some will turn away out of fear that their anonymity will be jeopardized. We must own the possibility that this disruption to the scheduled abortion may be beneficial. But the question remains will they simply seek another venue? And, as to the camera's use at certain times and places as a weapon against evil, I do not doubt its efficacy.

However, the problem for those identifying themselves as Christians is that instead of using the tools of spiritual warfare, i.e., prayer and fasting, these tactics, revulsion and intimidation, co-opt the weapons of the world. By fighting on the enemy's terms with anti-beauty and anti-love, it seems to me that we may further alienate from the Truth those whose hearts we wish to change. In a similar vein it would seem that some methods of protest, similar to those mentioned above may be injurious to the souls of those protestors since it moves them to anger and uncharitable confrontation. The extreme and irrational outcome of such anger was seen when Rev. Paul Hill, a Presbyterian minister who killed an abortion doctor in Florida, was recently executed.

In a similar situation during last year's gubernatorial election, many pro-life supporters, including some of our law school community, protested against pro-choice but professedly Catholic candidate and now Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. Picketers lined up each weekend outside of the Catholic church where she and her family worshipped. Many of the protestors carried the revolting posters exposed for all who entered the church to see. After the initial demonstration I received a phone call from an outstanding Catholic woman, unabashedly pro-life and a member of the picketed parish. She voiced her concern for the children being exposed to the graphic images, but also for the sensitive Catholics going to Mass seeking to be spiritually uplifted but now quite disturbed by the ugliness that confronted them on the way into church. She wondered if more harm than good was being accomplished. She said, "Why not use the gentle reminders of God's love and the concern of Jesus for children?" She wondered if those bearing the offensive posters were forgetting the positive message of the Gospel and overshadowing it with the hostile message of the Prince of Darkness. She said that some Catholics were angered by the offending protestors and were becoming turned off to the pro-life movement. It even seemed possible, she later told me, that some Catholics attending Mass during the campaign voted for Granholm to spite the protesters who they perceived to have been overbearing, causing them emotional pain and spiritual unease. While it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of the efforts of any kind of protest demonstration in support of life and especially in deterring abortions, it is obvious that methods using revulsion and intimidation have been disruptive to prayer, caused anger and offended pro-life supporters.

What then should we use as a guide to appropriate behavior for those identifying themselves as Christian protestors? I think two role models stand out: Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Both of them have always kept their message positive. They have emphasized the Gospel of Life to counteract the culture of death. Both have presented the love of God as taught in scripture and have presented images of God's mercy by invoking images of Jesus and His love for children and advocating the motherly role of the Virgin Mary. They have encouraged prayer and especially the communal recitation of the rosary as a sign of faith and a reminder of God's presence and desire for the salvation of all. It would seem that such authorities on life and love should set the standard for Christian etiquette in combating evil.

Therefore, banners of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints, the Pope and Blessed Teresa would be more than appropriate for visual display. Of course the standard of the cross should always be displayed. Posters with quotations from scripture, especially the New Testament and the prohibition against murder in the Ten Commandments, may be effectively used to change minds and hearts. Prayers should be recited and the singing of hymns encouraged. All confrontation, verbal and certainly physical, should be avoided. The only response to a taunt should be a blessing. Yet silence is preferable. To use the methods of the enemy or those who oppose our point of view is to join them. Anger, intimidation, ugliness, a hostile attitude and insensitivity may be detrimental to our own souls and those of the people we wish to persuade of the rightness of our cause. Hearts and minds are changed only by the gentleness of God's grace and the splendor of the truth. After all, isn't this the method Jesus used?

Our motives and methods even in good causes must always be examined. Stray un-Christian feelings may fog what should be the clear love for God in our hearts. Our actions do speak to others. In our case they must show Christ. Under no circumstances should we send mixed messages allowing prayer to be used as a cover or a context for less than Christian anti-abortion protesting.

I have the great privilege of being at an authentically Catholic and unashamedly pro-life law school. I have no doubt that our graduates will use their skills to promote life both by their personal Christian witness and legal skills to craft pro-life public policy that will limit and hopefully end abortion in this country. Because we are a community of faith our spirituality must inform our actions. How we present ourselves is as important as our desired goals. Spiritual leaders must counsel those involved in right to life projects to keep focused on Christ, and to guard against methods which deviate from the Gospel. Victory will only come in this battle by using God's ways and not man's.

After a month of my absence from the Saturday morning prayer protest, the gentleman with the banner was persuaded that his method of protest was counterproductive at least in one aspect it was keeping the priest away. He relented and is once more holding the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe and no camera. I am happy to tell the reader I am back praying with the group every Saturday morning. Amen!

Should We Use Graphic Images?

By Father Frank A. Pavone

Should graphic photos of babies who have been killed by abortion be used by pro-lifers who demonstrate on public sidewalks?

Even among those who oppose abortion, answers to this question vary. The dispute was recently brought to my attention again by a news article describing the concern of residents of a certain area that the graphic photos used by local pro-lifers disturbed the children.

I have demonstrated against abortion on the public sidewalks of almost every major city in America. I have used graphic images and have watched their effect. I am convinced they should be used, and here are some of the reasons.

1) The word abortion has lost practically all its meaning. Not even the most vivid description, in words alone, can adequately convey the horror of this act of violence. Abortion is sugar-coated by rhetoric which hides its gruesome nature. The procedure is never shown in the media. Too many people remain either in ignorance or denial about it, and hence too few are moved to do something to stop it. Graphic images are needed. A picture is worth a thousand words and in this battle, it can be worth many lives as well.

2) Graphic images of abortion have saved lives. One example is a letter I have from Violet Sherringford of New Jersey, who went to an abortion facility and found pro-life protesters there. "The posters they displayed, though very graphic, did succeed in bringing me back to reality and in conveying the horrible mutilation and dismemberment inflicted on the unborn child.... I decided to have the baby. It was the best decision I ever will make."

3) We use graphic images to save lives from other kinds of violence I've seen graphic drawing by first and second graders accompanied by the words "Drugs Kill."" I've seen smashed cars put on public display with the sign, "Drunk Driving Kills." The LA Times 7/8/95 reported an effort at Jefferson High School to stop street violence. Freshmen were shown slide after slide of victims blown apart by bullets. The anti-war movement in America was given momentum in the early '70's by a famous photo of a napalmed girl. Efforts to save the starving have been spurred on by images of malnourished children. The examples can go on and on.

4) The fact that the use of such images is disturbing does not mean such use is wrong. The free-speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment apply even to speech which is disturbing, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld (see The Right to Protest, ACLU: Gora et al .). Such disturbance is part of the price we pay for freedom. People might also be disturbed, annoyed, and upset by the blaring sirens of an ambulance rushing through the neighborhood. Yet the noise serves a purpose: People's lives are at stake, and the ambulance must be given the right of way.

5) I too am concerned about little children who see graphic images. I am also concerned about the littler children those images depict. The key factor that will make the difference in how children react to seeing anything disturbing is the role of their parents, who are present in a loving and comforting way, answering their questions and calming their fears. But to say that the presence of children in a neighborhood forbids the use of graphic images leads to an absurd conclusion, for what neighborhoods have no children? Is free speech to be limited to adult-only communities? And even then, what is to be done for the adults who complain?

It seems to me, furthermore, that if we find it difficult to explain images of abortion to our children we will find it even more difficult to explain why we didn't do more to stop abortion itself. The bottom line is that if graphic images of abortion are too terrible to look at, then the abortions themselves are too terrible to tolerate. We need to expose the injustice, and then direct our displeasure toward those allow the injustice to continue, not toward those who speak against it.

© Matt C. Abbott

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic columnist with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Management from Triton College in River Grove, Ill. He has worked in the right-to-life movement and is a published writer focused on Catholic and social issues. He can be reached at

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