Monday, January 17, 2005

Is the Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

I was surfing the web yesterday, looking for interesting news and articles about abortion that would inspire my next article. Following a link or two to find one that looked interesting, I came across a line warning that there were photographs ahead, and one must be 18 or older to view them.

From experience, I knew these would be photos of aborted children. Quickly, I scrolled down the article page thinking the photos would be on a separate link and easy to avoid. I started seeing diagrams, though, and as I feverishly hit at the scroll bar to escape the website, there it was: a ragged, wretched corpse of an infant destroyed by surgical abortion slapped me in the face.

I immediately closed all programs and closed the laptop. I sat in stunned silence while the image flashed across my mind over and over again. I instantly felt an overwhelming sense of violation.

For the rest of the day, the image wouldn’t leave me. It didn’t take long until I became furious. Not angry – but furious. I had a clear mental picture of taking that photograph and mashing it into the face of the person who posted it. I felt exactly as if I had been physically attacked. Someone had jumped out at me from nowhere, disguised as someone who wants to help, and shoved a photo of my victim, my dead child, in my face. I needed not only to retaliate, but I felt an intense need for self-defense and more: I needed to defend that child. These images that some of the pro-lifers use – these are all someone’s children. Are we absolutely sure we need to use them? Have we considered all possible responses to them?

When we show America what abortion looks like, we are also showing it to the forty-three percent of American women who have personal experience with the trauma of abortion. Some of those are suffering from post-traumatic stress in the nature of Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome. Forced and coerced abortions are particularly traumatic in nature and represent a large percentage of abortions. “The worst situation is when the injury is caused deliberately in a relationship with a person on whom the victim is dependent---most specifically a parent-child relationship,” (

What is psychological trauma? “…a traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual's perceived ability to cope, and leaves that person fearing death, annihilation, mutilation, or psychosis. The individual feels emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss.

This definition of trauma is fairly broad. It includes responses to powerful one-time incidents like accidents, natural disasters, crimes, surgeries, deaths, and other violent events. It also includes responses to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse, neglect, combat, urban violence, concentration camps, battering relationships, and enduring deprivation. This definition intentionally does not allow us to determine whether a particular event is traumatic; that is up to each survivor. This definition provides a guideline for our understanding of a survivor's experience of the events and conditions of his/her life.”

Not everyone who experiences psychological trauma will develop PTSD. Not every woman who has an abortion will develop PASS. It is important, however, for those who work with post-abortive women to understand the nature of the disorder and the effects of re-experiencing the trauma, particularly if they want to use shocking and violent images in their pro-life efforts.

"Survivors of repetitive early trauma are likely to instinctively continue to use the same self-protective coping strategies that they employed to shield themselves from psychic harm at the time of the traumatic experience. Hypervigilance, dissociation, avoidance and numbing are examples of coping strategies that may have been effective at some time, but later interfere with the person's ability to live the life s/he wants.

“A person who is hypervigilant is extremely anxious and worried that something bad will happen. He/she therefore is excessively aware of his/her surroundings, so as to "catch" the harm that is approaching,” (

I am always on the lookout against those things that will trigger uncomfortable and painful memories for me. One of the most intense is a photograph of an aborted child. In studies of trauma, the following emotional responses have been observed in those who are re-experiencing it: “…panic, fear, intense feelings of aloneness, hopelessness, helplessness, emptiness, uncertainty, horror, terror, anger, hostility, irritability, depression, grief and feelings of guilt,” (

I experienced all of those emotions yesterday after being attacked with the photo of a child who, for all I know, was my own, and whose blood was on my hands. Once the fury had subsided, because absolute fury is difficult to sustain for any length of time, I was left with intense sadness that lasted for the rest of the day. Tears ran uncontrollably from my eyes. I relived guilt, felt insecurity and fear stemming from I know not what, and grieved yet again.

Dissociation is just as it sounds. When an event is too traumatic for the mind to handle, we will split from it in whatever way possible. Often, dissociation involves repression of memories of the event in an effort to remove oneself from the cause of the trauma. I did this for twenty-five years. I know I saw the remains of my child, but I cannot force myself to recall the image. I have seen the film, “Silent Scream,” but I cannot remember the details of the movie (which shows a surgical abortion via aspiration from inside the womb). I also cannot remember where I was when I saw it, or under what circumstances. Even in smaller things, I shut out the memories. I saw the movie, Solaris, twice. The second time I saw it was the first time I consciously realized that the female character had committed suicide because of an abortion. The first time I watched the movie, I had blocked this information completely. I’ve done this a number of times, apparently, and every time I find the evidence of how easily I can dissociate from abortion, I am surprised. This is textbook dissociation, honed to a level that doesn't involve my conscious will any longer.

As a coping technique it fails, however, because the memories and the response they bring are still there whether they are brought to conscious mind or not. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, in describing emotions, said that emotions are always preceded by an idea. In order to choose an appropriate emotional response, we need to know the thought behind it. When we dissociate, we remove from our conscious minds the thought behind the emotions in an effort to remove those emotions. Unfortunately, the emotional response remains behind, firmly entrenched, and we are left clutching at air, unable to find the thought that preceded the emotional response. Consequently, our responses are often misdirected. Anger at a coerced abortion becomes just plain anger, and we often look for a source, any source, other than the one we cannot face.

Avoidance is also a commonly used tool against the anguish of a traumatic event when reminders of the trauma can reasonably be avoided. This isn’t always possible, especially in our culture of death. For a post-abortive woman who is anti-abortion, coming into the pro-life world is difficult at best. She is beset by images and descriptions of abortion and aborted children. She must immerse herself in the event that triggers the flashbacks of emotion and long-repressed memories. In order for her to succeed in this arena, she must be highly motivated and steeled against the pain. If she decides it is too much to bear, she will go back to using avoidance, and the pro-life movement has lost a valuable ally.

Numbing one's self against the pain of re-experienced trauma simply fails. We cannot ignore emotional responses. In order to change them, we have to know the idea that led to them. Numbing doesn’t involve any self-reflection. It is a denial of reality. “What are you angry about?” is a question I hear too much, and too often my response is, “I’m not angry,” while my body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice all contradict that statement. Saying it doesn’t make it true.

Why does the pro-life movement use the photographs of mutilated children to make their point? Apparently, there is a place for these images. For people who really don’t know what abortion is, and who have never given it any thought, the pictures of its reality are shocking and bring humanity to the children. But for nearly one in two American women, these photos are reminders of a traumatic event. I cannot help but feel we run a very real risk of driving away the very people who will help us end abortion – the ones who have been there and who can speak with authority and skill as to its damages.

These women may not only avoid pro-life workers, some will be hypervigilant about doing so. I remember the first and only time I ever saw a pro-life protest outside of an abortion clinic. It was twenty years ago. Again, it seemed as if they snuck up on me – they had to, because I was hypervigilant about avoiding them. I had no idea I was even driving past an abortuary. Sitting at a stoplight, I glanced over to see what the crowd was about, and saw a sign. On that sign, I got a good look at an aborted infant. That is all I remember. I never “saw” them again. I remember feeling the anger, and very pro-choice it was. I immediately felt they had violated my privacy and that of other post-abortive women, and I felt very strongly that they were not on my side.

I dissociated myself from pro-lifers. They were born-again Christians, bombers, nut-jobs, any number of things I could think to call them that I was not. I did wish someone with a true sense of what abortion is about would get on the case, but certainly I could not join their ranks. I could not use the tools I had developed over many years to suppress the trauma of my abortion and work with the pro-life movement at the same time. I would not be able to dissociate any longer, or avoid the subject, or numb myself against the emotional fallout.

What made me change? Not long ago, an episode like yesterday’s flashback would have left me confused. I would have been unable to figure out the source of my anger and defensiveness, but those emotions would have been there. Now, while I still have the emotions, at least I know why, and that does help. “Flashbacks can be triggered by external or internal events, often occur spontaneously, and cannot be controlled.” But understanding them can be key to entering into appropriate coping behavior.

I got here through prayer, specifically the Rosary. It is becoming easier to deal with the triggers because I can understand them. It has also been life-saving to find a community of like-minded women who DO have a true sense of what abortion is. But what about the women who are now where I was not long ago? Can they be reached in the depths of their guilt, pain and repression, or are we driving them away and into the arms of pro-choice people who will agree that they have been violated by this ugliness? The idea of latching onto the privacy notion is attractive. If we keep it private, we can better avoid it. But privacy and silence are contraindicated in the fight to end the abuse of women and children through abortion.

We cannot live outside of Auschwitz and continue to deny that anyone is being killed. But we don’t use pictures from the Holocaust indiscriminately and irreverently. I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. I think they understand how and when to use images of violence. The most moving displays, to me, are those that show the ordinary humanity of the victims, things that make them just like me and you: their eyeglasses, clothing, journals, and photos of them while they were alive. These were people, after all. Using the more heart-wrenching images of how they were destroyed, in order to educate, inform, and warn is important to prevent us from allowing it to happen again. There is great power in visual stimulation, but if I can steal from Spider Man, “with great power comes great responsibility,” or to go to the original source of this thought, “to those whom much is given, much will be required.” If you must use images, please use them responsibly, with discretion, and with a compassionate eye for those who will be more than just shocked.


At 6:50 AM, Blogger GrannyGrump said...

I immediately felt they had violated my privacy and that of other post-abortive women, and I felt very strongly that they were not on my side.The recent brouhaha over a Catholic church burying the burned fetuses from Warren Hern's abortion facility had Hern saying something very like this -- that the women who'd had abortions at his facility felt as if their privacy had been violated. And that struck me as bizarre, because nobody was naming the women. Nobody was even MENTIONING them. They were just openly giving a decent Christian burial to a large group of dead babies.

And here you say the same thing -- that it struck you as an invasion of privacy. Can you explain that? Since in niether case is any particular woman identified as the mother of the fetus in question, I just don't get how it feels like a privacy violation. (I get that it DOES feel like a privacy violation, I'm just cluless as to how that makes sense in the postabortion woman's mind.)

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Granny, this is a great question!

I think I felt my privacy was violated because the picture touched my very secret shame. (Which is not at all the fault of those who post pictures, of course, and I did a poor job of explaining that!)

Perhaps the women who protested the burial were responding negatively because burial and services gave their babies humanity. We had to deny that humanity at some level in order to go through with our abortions. What we see from them is most likely a defensive response to the reminder that the child is human.

To see evidence of what we did in photos or in funeral services is to grip our hearts at this deep level where we try to hide the shame, hence the feeling of violation. Many of us feel it so privately that we hide it even from ourselves in order to survive.

The photos brought these secrets into my conscious mind where I did not want them - ah, but that is exactly where they need to be! It is part of the healing process. I suggest it be considered problematic at best, since there will be varying responses based on the viewer's stage of post-abortion life.

For prevention - yes, let's use the images. For healing - let's be cautious about flooding a woman's heart and mind with her buried shame. She will need support to work through it.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger GrannyGrump said...

Silent, it sounds almost as if you felt your INNER privacy had been violated, the privacy of keeping one part of yourself secret from the rest. Am I getting the idea here?

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Silent Rain Drops said...

Yes, Granny - you hit the nail on the head. I only survived for so long by avoiding this darkness. The pictures were all too real reminders.

At 1:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NOTHING TO FORGIVE" (adapted for abortion survivors)

A woman stands in judgment today,
Still attempting to atone,
She sheds a tear in memory,
And feels so all alone.
Too many years of silence,
Has ripped this girl apart,
As the death of her unborn child,
Lies heavy on her heart.
She sits alone with sorrow
Questioning the baby's sex and name,
Consumed by her emotions,
Of sorrow, guilt and shame.
Then she travels back in time,
To where it all began,
Back to the abortion clinic,
Where they finalized the plan.
Self doubt and fear plagued the way,
To which she'd heed no warning,
Crying out for absolution,
Yet condemned to a life of mourning.
In that instant when she gave up on,
All the values she held true
"I'm sorry my blessed baby,
There'll never be another you."
With helplessness and horror,
For this life who grew inside,
She still recalls the instant,
When that precious child died.
Staring death in the face,
Knowing she too would die that day,
She tried to deny the agony,
"Don't worry, it's okay."
Shock and horror were the result,
Of taking that precious life
That day she took a tiny heart,
And cut it out with a knife.
Years went by in anguish,
And the girl was never free.
She stood alone against the world,
On the verge of insanity.
Trying her best to hide the pain,
And the tears she never cried.
With too much guilt to bare,
She only thought of suicide.
Wanting to see her baby in heaven,
But knowing it was a sin,
And if she ever followed through,
They wouldn't let her in.
The Lord finally cried out to her,
"It's not your fault my child."
I do not think you're wicked,"
Then he gently smiled.
God showed her all the reasons,
That she was meant to live,
"Now go in peace my daughter,
There's nothing to forgive."
But she closed her ears,
And she closed her mind,
As she carried the guilt,
For leaving her baby behind.
And the woman never told a soul,
Until this very day,
About her aborted baby,
And how it passed away.
Then she brings herself to face the pain,
With all the sorrow that she would feel,
The wounded soul hoped to find,
A place for her to heal.
As she called out to her angel,
She fell upon her knees,
In an anguished voice she whispered,
"Can you forgive me please?"
Then the spirit of the unborn baby,
Reached out to her at last,
"The time has come dear woman,
To let go of the past."
There was a reason to this rhyme,
There's no debt to repay,
I did have a purpose in this life,
And we'll meet again someday.
"Lay to rest your heavy heart,
And don't be afraid to live,
Now go in peace my mommy,
There's nothing to forgive."

Chris Woolnough

June 6, 2005


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