Peter Kreeft has recently come out saying that he wished that bishops would march with graphic pro-life pictures, and that in doing so they would be arrested, leading (we might assume) to media exposure. In light of my earlier discussion of beauty and truth, it seemed like a good starting point to reflect on the practice of using unseemly and disturbing images of aborted fetuses as part of a pro-life campaign.
I have always been strongly pro-life. I remain convinced that it is precisely because of the various philosophical uncertainties about the relationship of personhood to embryos and fetuses that we should rely both on the teaching of the faith and side with moral caution rather than recklessness. I am not unaware of the philosophical difficulties of the pro-life position, any more than I am unaware of the difficulties of the pro-choice position. The truth is that both face the problem both of vagueness or uncertainty in the definition of what counts as a person deserving of protection and of including or excluding groups of beings that they would rather not include or exclude within that definition. For example, on the pro-choice side, definitions based on rational choice would seem to exclude infants and even young children from the protected status of person, leading to the seeming permissibility of infanticide. On the pro-life side, one has the problem of defining personhood in such a way that would include embryos and fertilized zygotes while excluding tumors from parasitic twins, partial molars, and other similar complications.
Nevertheless, I believe the difficulty of the debate is itself reason to maintain a pro-life position. Let us say that I am outside a box into which I cannot see. A number of people around me have told me there is a baby inside, while others scoff and tell me there is only a lump of tissue. Until I have very good reason to believe it is not a baby, I believe it would be immoral for me to, say, sledgehammer the box. Similarly, the lack of philosophical consensus and the impossibility of the answer being definitively answered by empirical science (although empirical science is of undoubted help in clarifying the terms of the problem of personhood), I believe a pro-life stance is more ethically responsible.
Now, with that introduction to the topic out of the way, I will turn back to the issue of aborted fetus images. The use of these images signals to me a breakdown in the moral discourse and a retreat from rational debate. The basic premise of the use of these images is that the disturbing nature of an aborted fetus should produce an emotional reaction in the part of the viewer. It is meant to associate the concept of an abortion with a picture that is "gross," "distasteful," and otherwise ugly.
But the use of this subrational line of argument does two disservices to the pro-life movement: first, it suggests that we have nothing better to say about the issue than that aborted fetuses are ugly things. Ugliness, as a contrast of beauty, is here reduced to the most superficial level of what is displeasing to the eye. On a rational level, it makes about as much sense as attempting to dissuade someone from having a biopsy by showing them pictures of a bloody tumor. Furthermore, by intentionally evoking an emotional rather than a rational response to abortion, the use of these images has all the makings of intentional controversy or even scandal. While it is true that such a tactic may indeed turn someone away from having an abortion, in much the same way that it is conceivable that the FDA's new disturbing cigarette warning labels may turn some away from smoking, in another way it might just as easily turn off a woman to the entire pro-life message. The images are meant to instil fear and guilt, precisely the two emotions someone considering abortion needs to avoid in order to make a good decision. How we expect someone who is considering abortion to make a wise choice when we use deliberately polarizing tactics is beyond me.
There is another way in which the superficiality of the attempt to make a connection between the ugly and the immoral is that it undermines the connection of the truly beautiful with the good and the true. The beautiful does not point the way to the true merely in the external surface of its decorous or pleasing pattern or shape, but more importantly in its harmony with the unseen world of the intelligible. For this reason, we cannot immediately label whatever is aesthetically pleasing with the qualities "true" and "good." Similarly, we cannot label whatever is ugly with the quality "bad." There is always an extent in which the surface appearances of the world require the active participation of the intellect in order to truly appreciate beauty, and this process, though certainly incorporating subrational elements, must always be united with a rational comprehension of the relevant realities.
In other words, someone who sees a disturbing picture of an aborted fetus, winces, and decides not to go through with their abortion may, at that moment, have been prevented from committing an immoral act, but they will likely walk away from that experience with just as unreflective a view on abortion as they had before. The difficulties of their circumstances will remain, and there is no telling if, once the gut wrenching reaction wears off, they will not simply return to their initial course. More likely, encountering such a billboard will simply produce a shallow understanding of the pro-life argument, one that might blind the viewer to the important and philosophically nuanced arguments put forward by the pro-life position. Finally, it may simply resolve the entire debate into a partisan standoff of insult trading and sign waving, a condition that is endemic in American politics in general.