Josie Luetke:

Interim writer, Josie Luetke, Talk Turkey

There’s a quotation I really like from author and left-wing activist Andrew Boyd: “You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”

When you use abortion victim photography in activism, as I have for almost a decade now, you naturally grow desensitized to the images, at least to a degree. On a theoretical level, of course you appreciate how perturbing they are—which is exactly why we use them—but on a personal level, you sort of just start thinking of the signs as a tool. The victims blend into one—“a” fetus, completely interchangeable with another, or sometimes just “an abortion,” as if these humans are nothing more than their untimely demise.

Interestingly, this mental distancing that occurs within activists parallels the compartmentalization and clinical mindset with which former abortionists like Dr. Kathi Aultman have described operating.

It’s hard to help how your feelings become blunted, but it’s important to acknowledge this problem, and maintain an objective understanding of abortion victims as human individuals who are ends in themselves.

Every so often, something startles you into remembering this, into rehumanizing the victims, and becoming re-sensitized to the horror of abortion.

Several years ago, I recall reading about and seeing photos of the prenatal development exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which featured real miscarried babies preserved behind glass.

The movie Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer similarly chilled me. Footage of severed feet in jars is eerie in itself, but especially so when juxtaposed against abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s mundane hobbies of piano-playing and keeping pet turtles.

Bodies of babies, including five who appeared viable, were recovered by Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising activists outside of Washington Surgi-Center in D.C. last year. I was struck by the haunting image of “Harriet.” Her skull collapsed, she looks accusingly at the viewer through her one open eye. These were new victims of abortion. I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my chair; my eyes prickled, and my tongue lay thick and heavy in my mouth.

I had another such moment a few weeks ago. We were ordering new “Choice” Chain signs with abortion victim photography for our activism, to replace signs that were stolen and to enhance our current stock with ones that are sturdier and more durable. I spent at least 15 solid minutes analyzing the photos solely through a lens of utility.

Mid-way through making the decision about which ones we wanted, I was struck by how surreal and weird a process it was.

I was determining which photos I “liked” by weighing which ones best balanced the humanity of the preborn and the brutality of abortion. “Oh, I don’t like that one because the face is too pulverized.”  “I prefer the other, because you can see the head has caved in.”  “The body is intact in that one.”

With an analytical eye, I was noting intestines, ribs, and blood.

I was recording my preferences and trying to distinguish between different photos marked with the same fetal age so that it was clear which ones I was requesting in my email. I ended up listing “Abortion 15 weeks – 1st photo with face in metal tray” and “Abortion 15 weeks – 3rd photo with legs in metal tray & forceps.”

In my intense focus, I suddenly became aware of this unpleasantness sitting on my chest, how my mouth felt dry… What was I doing?

I had to remark on the strangeness of it, multiple times, to multiple people.

Who else sends emails like mine, except “procurement technicians” who purchase fetal body parts for research and whatnot?

Again, we use these images in part because most people aren’t desensitized to them, but I realize how easy they can be, how easy it is just to start seeing body parts and not the little people they belong to.

Some readers might interpret this column as an indictment of the use of abortion victim photography. It’s not.

The pro-life movement is far from the first social movement to use graphic imagery. Other lines of work involve a comparable, dispassionate examination of atrocities, like lawyers or investigators working sexual assault or murder cases. This desensitization I experience is not at all a symptom of apathy. Yes, it’s bred from an exposure to injustice, but in pursuit of its end, not as part of its perpetration.

I remember when I was much younger bawling my eyes out in my backyard at the awfulness of abortion, overcome with distress at the sickness of my society. (My mother was quite alarmed by my response.)  I was so young then.

How many times since has someone looked at a sign I’ve held of an abortion victim and commented about how delicious it looked, or made some similarly inane comment about BBQ or chicken? How many times have I been berated, as if I was the sick one?

But you can’t cry every day you do this work.

You forsake your own heart—you cut it from your chest, if you will—to keep their hearts beating. And you move forward, propelled by the memory of how abortion should make us feel.