Don’t Look: Look Closely: Abortion and Anti-Choice Aesthetics (Part 1)


There  are two sorts of visual tactics that anti-choice groups practice.[1] The first is intimidation, the second is dishonesty. The first will be dealt with here and the second will be the subject of a later part of this article.

In order to understand what I mean by intimidation in the realm of abortion aesthetics, a mental exercise must first be performed. If you are familiar with the large, often giant signs that some anti-choice groups utilize in public spaces all over the country, you must take them and imagine them in a white box space. Decontextualize the images on the pamphlets they thrust. Take them out of the hands of the people who wield them and hang them on a gallery wall in your mind. Perhaps you can go a step further and pose them in a fine arts museum. Put them, in your mind, in a place where they are not only looked at, but examined and interpreted. This is, politically, an extremely powerful act because you are doing the opposite of what you are supposed to with these images: behold them. choice signs

The images are appalling, and to be unexpectedly confronted by them and their threatening handlers is to be coerced into avoidance. While there are people who may become confrontational in response, the signs are meant to appall and frighten– to cause the viewer to look away. Most often the mammoth signs contain images of mangled fetuses. They are bloody and prescribe for the viewer a frame of disgusted mourning for an image that has no relation to any one person. That relation is not necessary because it is easy to guess a person’s reaction to the gory visuals they did not expect: they will be intimidated into turning away– seeing but desperately trying to remove themselves from the carnage they have been presented with.

While we are bombarded with criticisms of popular media as too violent or pornographic, the gore is largely left out of movies, television shows, and video games. In anti-choice visual materials, however, the opposite is true. The most visible side of the “pro-life” movement is represented by the remains of (implied) violence and death. There are no progressions or series of actions that lead to the ultimate outcome of gore, but only the photo images that present viewers with the experience of blood and tissue in what is intended to be a vaguely human shape. It was a human prevented from gaining its humanity while, simultaneously, having been grievously robbed of its humanity.

obama anti-choice signsThinking back to the white box space where these images have been divorced from their captors, it becomes apparent that there are multiple interpretive narratives that are equally valid. They play on the taboo of seeing dead children and being seen by others seeing dead children when they are not in a space whose primary purpose is to encourage viewers to look. Normal people do not enjoy “gore porn,” so how can one be so willing and deranged as to examine one of these images unless they are in a safe looking space? If one looks at those images, how quickly does one become implicated in their suggested slaughter– the refusal of humanity to an unborn thing? These images ask you to consider, on a personal level, while others are watching you, whether you are willing to have an abortion. This is the singular narrative that unanticipated, blinding, anti-choice visual texts are asking you to create, without recourse to a space that allows for the scholastic description and interpretation of those images. Even if the physical space does not now exist, I would like to suggest the tools to describe, interpret, narrate, and understand anti-choice images as a viewer, in addition to the considerable first step of imagining that such a space could be.

First there is the usefulness of the concept of “aesthetics,” and what it means. Whereas it tends to refer to a branch of philosophy concerned with the origins and interpretations of beauty and art, aesthetics has also become associated with a more scientific definition of “the study of sensory or sensori-emotional value, sometimes called judgments of sentiments and taste.”[2] Contemporary scholars further define aesthetics as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature.”[3] This current understanding of aesthetics is more useful for our purposes, but also, I would argue, useful to anyone who encounters the visual manifestations of an anti-choice group. That’s because decontextualizing through imagination starts with the assumption that it is possible to feel differently about an object if that object is relocated– that the sensori-emotional value of a thing does not inhere in an image or a viewer and thusly that value is malleable. But where does one go once one understands the nature of aesthetic judgments? Where the art critics go.

Art criticism involves a descriptive element whereupon the critic/viewer details, specifies and attempts to make sense of the images that they confront (or themselves are inadvertently confronted by). Once an image can be described, it can be read. You take note of your initial reaction to an image, describe the image, interpret the different parts or levels of meaning in the image, and then have the capacity to understand and assess the value of the narratives that others attach to the images. The importance of this capacity– to critically examine an image that seems unexaminable– is difficult to understate in a world increasingly dominated by controversial and unpleasant images. It is unexpectedly necessary, however, when dealing with seemingly innocuous images as well. That’s an issue for Part 2, though.

[1] Allow me to explain what will not be discussed here. Words present in images would necessitate a companion rhetorical analysis. I am interested, as purely as possible, in visual experiences of images, as opposed to the lingual. That is, visual texts as far as they can be divorced from verbally rhetorical materials that anti-choice groups also employ as part of their arsenal. This article is uninterested even in those pieces which are overwhelmingly a visual experience but use language. As far as the terminology of this work– it seems to me that the phrase “pro-life” is incorrectly paired in opposition to the phrase “pro-choice,” and it is in the interest in evening the playing ground I have chosen “anti-choice.”
[2] Nick Zangwill. “Aesthetic Judgment.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 02-28-2003/10-22-2007
[3] Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. New York, NY: Oxford University Press,1998. p. ix