“Facts are the background noise of debate and analysis,” former Reagan media expert Merrie Spaeth explained in The Wall Street Journal. “Anecdotes are a message’s most powerful anchors. In the battle for public opinion, personal stories win.”
Stories decide whose claims feel more real to more people. They give our facts and our arguments a public face. The pro-life movement has a picture as its primary symbol. The pro-choice movement has a story. Stories win.
Personal Stories Win
The pro-life movement wants to personalize the public argument by showing the persons most harmed by abortion. The standard pro-life image tells people the unborn child is someone just like them, only smaller and cuter. That’s why the movement uses so many pictures of unborn children at least a few months along. (No one has ever put an embryo on a poster.)
Prolifers present abortion as the killing of someone who doesn’t deserve to die. At least we assume that’s the natural take-away from seeing the picture of an unborn child in the context of the debate over abortion. I don’t think it always is, as I’ll explain in a moment. The picture says abortion kills this innocent, this beautiful child who is just like you, who ought to have the same chance to live that you had.
Pro-choicers counter the pictures of unborn babies with stories of desperate women. Undoubtedly true stories, sometimes their own stories. Women pregnant with a rapist’s child. Women with a severely deformed child who won’t survive long after birth. Women with life-threatening illnesses who might die if they have to bear their child. Women living in deep poverty or in constant danger. Women, in other words, for whom pregnancy makes life objectively worse.
Our hearts go out to them. The normal human being will be moved by their stories. We understand the appeal of abortion when you’re so desperate, or when you care for women who are so desperate.
Pro-choicers present abortion as the only cure for deep human suffering. It’s the simple procedure that will make the victim’s problem disappear. Aborting her child may be a hard, even tragic choice, but it will bring only good. She’s hurting and the abortionist can heal her. That’s the compelling cover by which many people will judge the book. Their moral reasoning may well go no further than “We’ve got to do something,” but it’s enough to make them talk and vote pro-choice.
The Pro-Life Movement Can’t Compete
I don’t think the pro-life movement’s pictures can compete in the public debate with the pro-choice movement’s stories. In my experience, many pro-life people don’t understand this. They’re genuinely baffled that their pictures of the unborn don’t convince people, and annoyed that so many people respond so strongly to the pro-choicers’ stories.
They assume that people will provide the story when they see the picture. That they will think of this unborn child on his first day of school, for example, later doing something nerdy like joining the debate team, then volunteering at a homeless shelter, and growing up to do good and to have children of his own. Human Life Review readers see the stories when they see these pictures. But I suspect that even we don’t feel them in the direct and visceral way we feel the kind of stories pro-choicers tell. Our stories are speculative, theirs are immediate.
Our picture doesn’t actually tell a story. It’s more like a fact and therefore part of the background noise Spaeth describes. It requires interpretation. Many people don’t get what we think the natural take-away from such a picture. They can see in the picture of the unborn child someone just like them and yet not think he deserves the same chance to live that they had at that stage of life. They can still believe abortion must be legal for any reason at any time during pregnancy.
They’ll explain this by pointing to the standard pro-choice stories. If they offer an argument, it will be that the suffering woman’s rights override her unborn child’s. Our arguments about a universal right to life seem very abstract in the face of such human suffering. They’re background noise.
The Pro-Choice Advantage
I don’t think the pro-life movement can ever overcome the pro-choice movement’s advantage in having the most easily compelling stories. In this culture, stories of people in pain will always move more people than pictures representing arguments about human rights. Our cultural assumptions about freedom, suffering, autonomy, well-being, and the like mean most of us — including pro-lifers — feel the stories of the suffering more than we empathize with the the unborn child in the picture.
If I’m right that their stories beat our picture, we have to do more to encourage people to so value the life of the unborn that in helping the suffering woman they won’t give up the child. I can only preach to myself, and to people like me, but for us that means more enacted kindness, more work to create a culture of life. I admit I’d rather write about that picture.