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Graphic Pictures: Help or Hindrance?

ve8QAd   |   July 01, 2000

Many of you are familiar with the graphic pictures depicting aborted, dismembered babies. They can leave the most seasoned pro-life advocate sick inside. Do these pictures have a place in the pro-life movement? Are they effective in changing the hearts and minds of people who otherwise would support or participate in abortion – or are they counterproductive? Do they make more enemies than converts for unborn babies?

Such pictures have a 30-year tradition of effectiveness when used before an audience as part of a full presentation and following pictures and facts of fetal development. In this case, however, we must consider huge pictures standing alone.

Recently, Life Issues Institute teamed up with the Cincinnati Right to Life Education Foundation to try to find answers to some of these questions when the University of Cincinnati (UC) was selected by a pro-life organization to display graphic pictures on its campus. The event was called the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) and was conducted by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.

Located in a central commons area, about 20 pictures measuring 6′ by 13′ displayed moments in history of human genocide, including graphic depictions of the holocaust and victims of racist lynching. These were compared with the genocide of abortion, portraying equally graphic pictures of dismembered babies. Signage warned approaching students and faculty of the display ahead.

No faint-of-heart pro-life advocate would take such a provocative, in-your-face presentation to an American university, which is often a bastion of radical pro-abortion feminism. Most institutions of higher learning proudly espouse the First Amendment right to free speech. However, it’s a different story when pro-lifers come to town. Some faculty members sent e-mail correspondence to the entire student body opposing GAP’s presence. In addition, in this case there were four very negative pieces published in the campus newspaper “warning” students of their display, but there were no evenhanded or positive commentaries. Is this an atmosphere where graphic pictures can change hearts and minds? Or are these well-meaning pro-life activists pouring gasoline on an open flame?

To get an unbiased analysis of the effect of such graphic pictures on a university campus, we searched for a sound venue to measure its success. We called upon the services of a respected and experienced polling firm to measure the pro-life opinion of UC students before and after the GAP event. We caution that these results are preliminary findings. There should be an ongoing research project to more fully determine the net effectiveness of this type of pro-life education.

Going in, we anticipated that GAP would have a larger impact on male students than female. The reason, we thought, would be that male students would react more positively to the graphic nature of the pictures. The research results indicate otherwise, pointing to a much higher impact on women under 25 years of age than men.

The results show that there was a shift from a consistent pro-abortion position toward the broad middle undecided group among this category of female students. The overall shift demonstrated a decrease in pro-abortion attitudes and a net increase in pro-life attitudes. Another finding was that a majority of the students were aware of the GAP event either by seeing it or from reading or hearing about it.

Is Life Issues Institute ready to jettison other pro-life education programs in favor of this technique? No, it is too early to endorse this method without doing more research. However, based on these initial findings, we would be ill- advised to outright dismiss such a graphic approach. We are encouraging the organizers of GAP to build on what we’ve found so as to more accurately measure its effect. If future research confirms our early findings, this method must be evaluated in a new and serious light.

We also want to stress that there are many effective ways to protect unborn babies and their parents from abortion. For example, there are nearly 4,000 women help centers across the nation that deal directly with women facing unexpected pregnancies. Their track record is unmatched in saving lives, while sparing the parents the often-devastating effect of abortion. The medical and factual approach to pro-life education has long proven highly effective in changing hearts and minds on abortion. The pro-life movement is a patchwork quilt of organizations with the ability to reach a wide variety of constituencies. We should never be in a position of criticizing any legal and peaceful approach that has proven successful in helping to end abortion. That would be divisive and counterproductive to the mission – not to mention factually inaccurate.

The GAP demonstration occurred the day after Life Issues Institute concluded a three-month saturation television ad buy for the greater Cincinnati area. (Read more about that in this issue of Connector.) How did the graphic approach compare with a very different style of pro-life persuasion through TV ads? The GAP polling research showed that the TV ads were twice as effective as the GAP event in positively impacting women under 25.

In summary, we are cautiously optimistic that the GAP approach may be another available tool to the pro-life movement in protecting unborn life. We strongly urge that the follow-up research be done.

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