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Not dramatic enough

Why subtlety, not blood and guts, will best serve the battle against abortion

Issue: "Lord of the box office," Jan. 11, 2003

Gregg Cunningham, whose occupation and preoccupation is getting in the face of the American public with grisly billboard-size pictures of aborted babies, says I'm the only person who has ever accused him of not being sufficiently dramatic with his message.

Mr. Cunningham heads the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), an activist pro-life organization in Anaheim, Calif. He believes that the pro-life movement in the United States has largely ground to a halt. Crisis pregnancy centers have become the focal point of the pro-life cause, and the target of most pro-life dollars. CPCs are good, he says, but he doesn't think the statistical evidence shows that they do much to persuade most women with unwanted pregnancies to choose against abortion. In Washington, meanwhile, a generation of lobbying has produced little in meaningful results. Most pro-lifers, he thinks, are discouraged and think the war has been lost.

The war is lost, Mr. Cunningham agrees, if we think only in terms of adults. Most have made their peace with abortion, however reluctantly. But that, he argues, is because they have never really come to terms with what happens when a baby is aborted. And that's why he thinks the big, ugly, awful pictures are so important. He's optimistic that America's young people can be persuaded.

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So he plasters those pictures on the sides of big trucks and runs the trucks up and down the vast freeway system of Los Angeles and next to high schools in the area. He has created a startling billboard display that he takes to state university campuses. He even tows flying billboards behind planes over crowded beaches. And now, in his most controversial venture so far, Mr. Cunningham wants to take his billboards to the entryways of some big evangelical churches, where he hopes he'll make some people more uncomfortable about the issue than they've ever been before (see "Shake up or shake down?" on p. 21).

But Mr. Cunningham is right: I don't think, with all this, that he's gotten sufficiently dramatic in his portrayal of the case against abortion.

I say this as someone who is frankly impressed with Mr. Cunningham's work. I took several hours last month to go out with one of CBR's big trucks. We toured several dozen miles of freeway, and we drove slowly around the Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. I watched the responses of the startled students and a number of adults. To those who say the CBR approach is crude and offensive, I ask: "And what specifically are you doing to change people's minds about this bloody crime?"

So when I take issue with Mr. Cunningham's gruesome pictures, it's not because they are overly repugnant. I take issue because they aren't repugnant enough. But gripping the heart of the viewer is a subtle matter. Bluntly, the pictures used by CBR do little to make me think of human life. They remind me more of common roadkill.

Real emotional involvement comes not with an overly explicit portrayal of death-but with a nuanced portrayal instead of the delicate balance between death and life. That's why the candid photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked down the highway to escape the horrors of napalm probably had as much influence in the late 1960s as any other single factor in turning American public opinion against the war in southeast Asia. When the photographer snapped that picture, there were almost certainly plenty of dead bodies lying around. But what memorably captured the hearts of onlookers around the world was the reality of a young woman teetering between life and death. And that subtlety changed the course of a war.

Such subtlety has generally eluded us in the war against abortion. We came close, perhaps, in that wonderful and widely circulated operating room photo a year ago showing a tiny baby's hand reaching up through the incision in his mother's abdomen. But that very pro-life picture, breathtaking as it was, said nothing of the terror of abortion.

No photographer, of course, goes out to set up props and then stage the photo I'm looking for. The greatest photos "just happen." So pro-lifers who have confidence in God's sovereign providence can pray together that some amazing yet terrifying image might be captured by a lens quite unprepared for what it suddenly sees.

When that remarkable picture appears-and I pray it will not be long-I have no doubt Gregg Cunningham will plaster it all over his trucks, at campus centers, and across the sky. I also have no doubt that at long last, countless viewers will finally be compelled to look on and exclaim, maybe even unconsciously: "Oh, no-I never ever thought about it that way before." And few will dare to ask how such a picture could possibly be exhibited in public.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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