America's Stunning Abortion Mind-Block

America's Stunning Abortion Mind-Block

By Heather Wilhelm - April 13, 2013

If there’s one thing pro-choice Americans universally hate, it’s groups of pro-life protesters hoisting up huge, unsightly, and graphic photos of aborted babies in public spaces. Years ago, in fact, after a pro-choice Denver church sued over a cluster of photo-brandishing pro-life protesters across the street, the Colorado Appellate Court upheld a decision to ban these “gruesome” images.

The implications for free speech are alarming. Several groups, including Chicago’s Thomas More Society, have petitioned the Supreme Court to review and overturn the Colorado ruling. But beyond First Amendment concerns, there’s an even bigger question at hand: Who can look at these images -- images that are widely available, honest, and undoctored -- and not think twice about their support for abortion?

This question gains even more resonance with the ongoing murder trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell. If you haven’t heard this story yet, it’s because the mass media have largely blacked it out -- until now. Thanks to dogged reporting by writers like Mollie Hemingway (at and the Get Religion blog) and Kirsten Powers (in USA Today), the story of Gosnell’s “house of horrors,” in which he allegedly butchered multiple babies born alive, is slowly leaking out into the American mainstream.

Much has been written about the traditional media’s curious refusal to report on, as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently put it, an “insanely newsworthy” story. What hasn’t been discussed as much is the power of visual images to convey uncomfortable truths. I was reminded of this while reading Friedersdorf’s excellent post on the Gosnell trial, which includes a heartbreaking photo from the case’s grand jury report. It was the first image I had seen of Gosnell’s macabre handiwork. The grand jury’s caption for the picture is simple: “Baby girl aborted by Gosnell.” It looks, chillingly, like a beaten-up little doll.

It is, quite obviously, a baby – similar to the hundreds of thousands of “fetuses” aborted in this country every year. In this age of technological miracles, where fetal heartbeats can be detected at six weeks and 3D ultrasounds show babies smiling, laughing, and sucking their thumbs in utero, it might seem inevitable that support for abortion will dramatically slip over time. That hasn’t happened yet. Today, Gallup reports, 61 percent of Americans support legal abortion in the first trimester; 27 percent support legal abortion in the second trimester, and a stunning 14 percent support it in the third trimester.

In fact, even while staring down obvious evidence that abortion kills real, live, squirming (and in the case of one Gosnell victim, screaming) human beings, certain abortion activists are doubling down. This January, Salon published a piece titled “So What If Abortion Ends Life?,” in which author Mary Elizabeth Williams argues for “unrestricted reproductive freedom.” Those crazed right-wingers are correct that a fetus is a human life, she writes, but “here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal.”

At least Williams is logical: “When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. . . . I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time -- even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”

Kermit Gosnell’s lawyers, amazingly, defend the abortionist by arguing that his tiny victims were “already dead” when he “snipped” their spinal cords. Even if this were true -- which it doesn’t appear to be, based on sickening testimony from Gosnell’s staff, who allegedly murdered babies on counters, in toilets, and with scissors -- doesn’t it miss the point? Aborted babies don’t just give up and die in the womb. They die because a doctor tries to kill them before they come out.

Most people, thankfully, aren’t like absolutist Salon writers who like to own this fact and parade it in a national news outlet. Most people try to be nice, so they just don’t think about abortion. Most people, in fact, will get very upset if you try to point out these “grisly” and “gruesome” facts.

On this issue, there appears to be a well-known, unwritten rule in America’s civic life: We’ll just pretend this isn’t happening. We’ll just be polite and let this pass. We certainly won’t talk about it at cocktail parties. And as the large-scale media’s blackout of Gosnell trial shows (not to mention government banning of “disturbing” abortion protest photos), America’s mind-block on abortion is deeply and scarily ingrained.

But the facts are facts. The photos are real, no matter how hard some might work to push them away. And this issue won’t “just pass.” When evil stares a nation in the face, and we can’t even discuss it -- or, in some cases, diligently work to hide direct evidence of it -- we clearly have a long way to go. We might even be part of the problem. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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