Picturing fetal remains

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When late-term abortion doctor George Tiller was killed in May, the mainstream media covered the issue extensively. There were front-page stories for days and the major papers ran pieces discussing what the murder meant for the abortion rights movement, what types of pregnancies women end late, and whether the pro-life movement bore responsibility for the death. When anti-abortion activist James Pouillon was shot and killed in Michigan last month, the mainstream media response was significantly more muted. While there could be different explanations or excuses for the insignificant coverage, let's just commend the New York Times and reporter Damien Cave for this article that explores that subset of the pro-life movement that engages in street activism and carrying graphic signs depicting what the remains of abortion look like. As much as I enjoy Cave's writing -- he was in Iraq and is now the bureau chief in Miami -- I was inclined to dislike the piece when I read this lede:

OWOSSO, Mich. -- Action means many things to abortion opponents. Lobbyists and fund-raisers fight for the cause in marble hallways; volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers try to dissuade the pregnant on cozy sofas.

Then there are the protesters like James Pouillon, who was shot dead here last month while holding an anti-abortion sign outside a high school. A martyr to some, an irritant to others, Mr. Pouillon in death has become a blessing of sorts for the loosely acquainted activists who knew him as a friend: proof that abortion doctors are not the only ones under duress, proof that protests matter, and a spark for more action.

The idea that the death of any individual could be characterized as a blessing to his fellow travelers just seemed uncharitable to me. However, as I read the piece, I was pleasantly surprised with the calm and fair-minded approach of the reporter. It's not just the main story, there's a fantastic interactive feature with pictures and narration. And my favorite piece of reporting is the sidebar exploring where the pictures of the aborted fetuses came from.

The main story, which ran on Saturday but on page one and above the fold, looks at how other protesters came to join Pouillon. Their stories are presented succinctly and without snark. One man used to swear at Pouillon before becoming a born-again Christian. Others speak of experiencing unwanted pregnancies. He puts the street protesters in context of the larger movement:

Together, these street activists make up an assertive minority of a few thousand people within the larger anti-abortion movement. Neither the best financed nor largest element in the mix, they are nonetheless the only face of anti-abortion that many Americans see. Indeed, persistent provocation is their defining attribute: day after day on street corners from California to Massachusetts, they stand like town criers, calling to women walking into abortion clinics, or waving graphic signs as disturbing as they are impossible to ignore.

He speaks with opponents who view the protesters as bullies or simply as unhelpful to the pro-life cause. The story digs deep into the complicated motivations of the protesters. He profiles three individuals to show that they view themselves as "righteous curbside critics, prophets warning the world with what they describe as the horrific truth no one wants to see. They have endured insults, threats and even estrangement from their families because they have found what nearly every activist craves: conviction, camaraderie and conflict."

All of the stories involve religion and all of them are shockingly straightforward. It's a dispassionate look at an incredibly passionate group of people. It almost has a Stephanie Simon feel to it. There's even a discussion of why many protesters choose Old Testament verses over New Testament ones.

As I mentioned, the feature that ran on the Times' photojournalism blog was, in my mind, the most provocative and interesting part of the package. Behind the Scenes: Picturing Fetal Remains begins:

The photographs are graphic and detailed, showing the fingers or toes of aborted fetuses whose entire frames are no bigger than a cellphone. Since the mid-1990s, they have appeared all over the country -- carried as posters by protesters, handed out with pamphlets or, in some cases, mounted like billboards on the sides of trucks.

Like many others, I often wondered about the source of these images. Who took the pictures? Where did the fetuses come from?

I had a chance to find some answers while reporting in late September on the death of James Pouillon, the anti-abortion protester who was shot and killed in Owosso, Mich.

I had also wondered about the source of the images. I didn't know if they were domestic or foreign. I didn't know in which decade they were taken. I didn't know how they were taken and under what circumstances. This piece explains all of that -- and answers other questions I didn't even know I had.

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As I was looking for information about whether any other reporter -- prior to Cave -- had written about this, I came across a pro-life news article addressing the issue. Here is what LifeNews.com says:

Monica Migliorino Miller, a Michigan pro-life advocate and professor at Madonna University, has taken so many pictures of babies killed in abortions she is regarded as an expert of sorts.

She told LifeNews.com over the weekend that the Times show and online pictorial is "nearly unprecedented in 37 years of legalized abortion."

"Perhaps for the first time in the history of the pro-life movement a nationally recognized paper -- or any newspaper for that matter -- has deliberately printed photos of actual abortion victims," Miller said.

Miller talked about the genesis of the news report and online photo spread.

"This is a story written by reporter Damien Cave who attended the memorial service for murdered pro-lifer, Jim Pouillon," Miller explained. "After the service, the reporter approached [me] and asked me about the use of graphic images in pro-life work. We later did a two hour interview and this story is the result."

I should mention here that the Times cautions readers about the graphic nature of the photos before showing the images. In any case, I don't find it surprising that the mainstream media avoided showing the pictures prior to the dawn of the internet. I do find it interesting that this is the first instance of showing fetal remains.

Do you think it's appropriate to show these pictures? Do you think the Times handled the publishing of the pictures well?

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