We Just Have a Picture. They Have Stories
“Facts are the background noise of debate and analysis,” former Reagan media expert Merrie Spaeth explained in The Wall Street Journal. “Anecdotes are a message’s most powerful anchors. In the battle for public opinion, personal stories win.”
Stories decide whose claims feel more real to more people. They give our facts and our arguments a public face. The pro-life movement has a picture as its primary symbol. The pro-choice movement has a story. Stories win.
Personal Stories Win
The pro-life movement wants to personalize the public argument by showing the persons most harmed by abortion. The standard pro-life image tells people the unborn child is someone just like them, only smaller and cuter. That’s why the movement uses so many pictures of unborn children at least a few months along. (No one has ever put an embryo on a poster.)
Prolifers present abortion as the killing of someone who doesn’t deserve to die. At least we assume that’s the natural take-away from seeing the picture of an unborn child in the context of the debate over abortion. I don’t think it always is, as I’ll explain in a moment. The picture says abortion kills this innocent, this beautiful child who is just like you, who ought to have the same chance to live that you had.
Pro-choicers counter the pictures of unborn babies with stories of desperate women. Undoubtedly true stories, sometimes their own stories. Women pregnant with a rapist’s child. Women with a severely deformed child who won’t survive long after birth. Women with life-threatening illnesses who might die if they have to bear their child. Women living in deep poverty or in constant danger. Women, in other words, for whom pregnancy makes life objectively worse.
Our hearts go out to them. The normal human being will be moved by their stories. We understand the appeal of abortion when you’re so desperate, or when you care for women who are so desperate.
Pro-choicers present abortion as the only cure for deep human suffering. It’s the simple procedure that will make the victim’s problem disappear. Aborting her child may be a hard, even tragic choice, but it will bring only good. She’s hurting and the abortionist can heal her. That’s the compelling cover by which many people will judge the book. Their moral reasoning may well go no further than “We’ve got to do something,” but it’s enough to make them talk and vote pro-choice.
The Pro-Life Movement Can’t Compete
I don’t think the pro-life movement’s pictures can compete in the public debate with the pro-choice movement’s stories. In my experience, many pro-life people don’t understand this. They’re genuinely baffled that their pictures of the unborn don’t convince people, and annoyed that so many people respond so strongly to the pro-choicers’ stories.
They assume that people will provide the story when they see the picture. That they will think of this unborn child on his first day of school, for example, later doing something nerdy like joining the debate team, then volunteering at a homeless shelter, and growing up to do good and to have children of his own. Human Life Review readers see the stories when they see these pictures. But I suspect that even we don’t feel them in the direct and visceral way we feel the kind of stories pro-choicers tell. Our stories are speculative, theirs are immediate.
Our picture doesn’t actually tell a story. It’s more like a fact and therefore part of the background noise Spaeth describes. It requires interpretation. Many people don’t get what we think the natural take-away from such a picture. They can see in the picture of the unborn child someone just like them and yet not think he deserves the same chance to live that they had at that stage of life. They can still believe abortion must be legal for any reason at any time during pregnancy.
They’ll explain this by pointing to the standard pro-choice stories. If they offer an argument, it will be that the suffering woman’s rights override her unborn child’s. Our arguments about a universal right to life seem very abstract in the face of such human suffering. They’re background noise.
The Pro-Choice Advantage
I don’t think the pro-life movement can ever overcome the pro-choice movement’s advantage in having the most easily compelling stories. In this culture, stories of people in pain will always move more people than pictures representing arguments about human rights. Our cultural assumptions about freedom, suffering, autonomy, well-being, and the like mean most of us — including pro-lifers — feel the stories of the suffering more than we empathize with the the unborn child in the picture.
If I’m right that their stories beat our picture, we have to do more to encourage people to so value the life of the unborn that in helping the suffering woman they won’t give up the child. I can only preach to myself, and to people like me, but for us that means more enacted kindness, more work to create a culture of life. I admit I’d rather write about that picture.
Do you think this is true of pictures of aborted babies?
Our stories are pretty compelling, too. Silent No More. The mothers of babies conceived in rape. Every mother who chose life and was grateful. The stories experienced or concocted by pro-choicers are narratives of fear and helplessness. More important are the lived realities of those who chose life, whether in time to save a life or after an abortion.
I couldn’t disagree more with this article. It is true that personal stories can be more moving than images. Images of the unborn child, have been used as an icon of the prolife movement both effectively and redundantly for decades. But the purpose of this imagery is to remind people of the undeniable humanity of the fetus…something a thousand words can not immediately project. Secondly, there are plenty of prolife personal testimonies which have been published with effect from woman who have had abortions to the experiences of the abortionists themselves (see Abby Johnson or Bernard Nathanson, to name only too).The prochoice testimonies you cite all have the same, innane, moral dimension…the pregnant woman feels she needs to escape an “impossible” scenario. The story ends there, with the escape and the rather superficial celebration of freedom circumscribed by limits of the participants imagination. The prolife testimonies, on the other hand, usually involve a profound and unexpected sense of conversion from a pro-abortion perspective to a stunning appreciation of the value of life in the womb…and, of course deep remorse over having been party to a death through the abortion procedure.
This is very insightful of David, and I agree wholeheartedly that we are inferior position. This is why every president in the past 30 years or so (I think starting with Reagan) trots out a person or several persons at the Sate of the Union speech to put a face to the compelling story that is being told. No story of a rapist that would try to put the rapist in a good light would ever succeed because the intention of the rapist is never good and the act is always assumed rightly to be violent. Technology and willing accomplices have taken the horror out of many sins. If the abortion story ended with an account of the woman or boyfriend inserting a drill into the unborn I do not think the story would be as compelling. I think a gentle reminder of what actually happens during an abortion is probably the only way to make sure the whole story is being told. Otherwise it is just part of a story being told.
Pro-life supporters have two different kinds of stories to tell (I suppose pro-choice supporters do, too, in the reverse): the stories of women who chose life and the stories of women who chose abortion and suffered as a result (Project Rachel’s stories, for example).
It is an unfortunate fact that arguments are not often won on their merits but on the anecdotes that illustrate them, as the author illustrates. Let us tell our stories, too, then! And let us tell the Story!
What if we, pro-lifers, gathered stories and pictures of children who were nearly aborted? These children would have a message of thanks to their mothers for carrying them to birth. I am a video producer and can help with this.
Have you ever heard of Rachel’s Vineyard? Probably not or you wouldn’t say something as inane as “their stories beat our pictures.” RV/Silent No More/Then There Were None etc etc are packed with post-abortion stories. These walking wounded are usually happy to share their stories but few want to listen.
We can only stand a little reality, you see
Hmm, seems to me that the pictures of the holocaust, the horrors of Vietnam, the horrors of our wars in the Middle East, and the horrors of domestic terrorism (e.g. Sandy Hook) did a fine job of moving public opinion.
I think we are at a disadvantage, not because we lack evidence or heart wrenching stories, but we are at a disadvantage because we receive practically no support from our hierarchy. Abortion is just “one of many issues” they say. It’s just as important as immigration, or a “living wage,” or universal healthcare. The difference is, you can be a good person and disagree with how best to handle and address those issues. You cannot be a good person and advocate for and aid those who are committing uterine infanticide.
No, we’re at a disadvantage because of cowardice. Our leadership is spineless. Or worse, perhaps they really don’t care. It’s tantamount to the German bishops’ inaction leading up to and during WWII. They were complicit in the atrocities, because they were too cowardly to speak out against them.
Stories of abortion survivors are powerful pro-life messages that need to be more widely known.
Following up on my last comment,
It is remarkable how the hierarchy is quick to condemn conservative Catholics for opposing progressivist policies. They are called “unchristian” for doing so. (Nevermind the fact that progressivist policies consistently lead to a greater disparity of wealth while free market economies always lead to the opposite!)
On the other hand, we have Catholics at the highest levels of government, (the former vice president, the former speaker of the house, supreme court justices, senators, congresspersons, executive cabinet members, and governors) who are stanchly pro-abortion. Yet, mum’s the word on them. They are not labelled unchristian for their promotion of murder. They are not called to repent for their misdeeds. No, they are the “good guys” who happen to get this one issue out of so many (and really, more important) issues wrong.
I helped to fund an abortion when I was 15. It took 30 years to confess that mortal sin. While driving by an abortion clinic I yelled “Walk a mile in their shoes” at the protestors. I rear ended a car that I didn’t even see in front of me. We exchanged information and I never saw the driver of that car again even though there was damages. Someone is speaking to us – someone much larger than us.
We DO have women’s stories! Go to legacyoflifefoundation.org and read them there, please.
In any consideration of Pro-Life advocacy, it is always important to remember that effective public argument was uniformly ignored or suppressed by the all-powerful media. While it is somewhat true that Pro-Lifers utilized pictures more than stories, there were many compelling stories of courageous mothers, beautiful babies and humble seervants of both. Those stories were not allowed to be heard and Pro-Lifers frequently lacked the money to circumvent the media. Thanks to “new media” and the recent defensiveness of the “dinosaur media” there are increasing opportunities for the sharing of these stories. Thank God we have many everyday. While Silent No More deserves the vanguard in this effort, may I humbly suggest our website at Good Counsel Homes which regularly posts about our moms and babies and the winning of lives.
There’s some truth to this.
But most of pro-choice “stories” are actually lies: most abortions are ‘back up contraception’ and don’t involve tough choices like threatened health, rape, or horrible birth defects.
Respectfully, it’s not that we pro-life doesn’t have stories. Talk to anyone who has attended a Rachael’s Vineyard retreat. Oh, we have stories. What we lack is a venue to tell those stories on a mass scale. The pro-choice crowd has a liberal media all too willing to push their agenda. We have small news outlets that cater to folks who think as we do so our stories become preaching to choir.