This past weekend, on January 28th, the first Arkansans for Limited Government rally happened and it was a smashing success. Nearly 400 people swung through and over 300 signatures were collected! 

So thank you, thank for your support! This weekend, you can drive through these locations in Pulaski County to sign the amendment! Hit the link to get details. 

About Those Posters

Today’s post is about something I noticed at the rally. Specifically, a few posters our friendly pro-life protestors were holding contained what I’ll charitably call “macabre disinformation.” 

To be crystal clear, I don’t begrudge them their beliefs or their right to protest. Freedom of speech forms the bedrock of our democracy, and if I’m allowed to yell about supporting reproductive choice and personal liberty, they’re allowed to yell about not supporting abortion, and that’s the way the road goes. 

What I do have a problem with, however, is the hilariously inaccurate content of some of their posters. Most of the posters were unobjectionable – mostly text that expressed a pro-life message. No sweat; I disagree, but them’s the breaks. 

A few, however, expressed a more… distasteful message. Some folks – a dramatic minority among the crowd of protestors, to be as fair to the anti-choice crowd – held posters with violent and gruesome images that claimed to be photos of recently aborted babies. I won’t put the photos here. They are truly disgusting; we had children at the rally who were so upset by them they asked to leave so I’m not going to do to you what they did to us. If you aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, there are a few examples here, but look with the knowledge they are visceral. They’re intended to be so, and we’ll get into why below. 

I want to take the time to talk about them today because as the campaign heats up and more rallies are held, I have no doubt we’ll see these posters a lot.

A Brief History of Misleading Anti-Choice Images

The images are variations on the now-infamous photos originally popularized by Dr. Jack Wilke and Barbara Wilke, anti-abortion activists who began their crusade in the late 1960s and published the photos in Handbook on Abortion and “Life or Death”, pamphlets they began publishing in the early 1970s. The Wilkes were some of the first to realize the power these photos held in persuading audiences to the pro-life side. 

There’s just one little problem: the photos aren’t particularly accurate. Dr. Wilke had a habit of exaggerating medical information about abortion; for example, you may remember Rep. Todd Akin’s comment in 2012 that women rarely get pregnant after being sexually assaulted. Dr. Wilke held this view and wrote frequently about this belief, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence; the horrifying statistics published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Society prove that without a doubt. 

These photos were widely criticized by other medical professionals at the time because they were heavily manipulated. Author and professor Karissa Haugeberg said in an interview that the photos likely were real fetuses, but the photos themselves were altered: they would “manipulate fetal remains to make them look like they were older than they were,” for example, or add details to make the photos look “as jarring as possible.” The photos used by our friends on the other side of this issue descend from the same lineage of misdirection and visual trickery.

What is the point of this visual fib? It’s to create a visceral, emotional response: “How can people do this to a small baby? Can’t the baby feel this?” 

Well, no. Let’s take a look at another (in)famous example. 

In a short film called the Silent Scream, made in 1984, a doctor named Bernard Nathanson walks the viewer through what he claims is the abortion of a twelve-week old fetus. But like the Wilkes’ photos, the images have been heavily altered and manipulated. The frames per second of the ultrasound footage was sped up or slowed down to supposedly prove that the fetus is in pain or trying to move around. 

Except, as one doctor at the time noted, the cortex – the part of the brain that allows us to feel pain – hasn’t developed at 12 weeks. The film is so misleading that it uses a full-sized model of a fetus when in fact, a fetus at 12-weeks is just a little less than two inches long

What’s the Role of Emotion in an Emotional Situation? 

Emotional responses to these incorrect but visceral visuals are perfectly understandable. They’re intended to push viewers into that knee-jerk reaction, to shock, to outrage. But it’s important to understand how complex fetal development is and how poorly these photos and videos represent actual fetal development. Outrage generally doesn’t concern itself with “complex.” An interview with a Tennessee OB/GYN just this week sums it up: “Obstetrics is nothing but gray.” 

Here’s another way of representing a developing baby, for instance. 

I don’t contrast these series of images to say that emotion has no place in the debate we’re asking Arkansans to hold over the next ten months. I actually think that emotion is going to be incredibly important; I certainly do feel outrage over what women forced to carry nonviable babies to term must go through because their state government says so; I feel grief for the women who lose their health because their doctors can’t give them the treatment they need when they need it; I feel horror for the girls forced to carry pregnancies caused by the most traumatic event imaginable. 

But while one side seems to want to rely entirely on misinformed emotions and override our better judgment as independently minded citizens, my emotions are sparked by the facts reported by medical providers trying to provide care to women and by those women’s real stories. One side wants to mislead Arkansans with manipulated photos created by a man who thinks rape can’t cause pregnancy. One side wants to give Arkansans the freedom to make their own choices and keep men like Dr. Wilke out of the exam room. 

I think Arkansans want to know the facts, not fall prey to falsehoods. 

If you agree, volunteer for the campaign, sign the petition, and donate what you can.