Right and Wrong in Abortion Protests

Joseph Manning’s pro-life activities in Cranston evoke mixed feelings in me:

Joseph Manning agreed to take down the baby outfits he had hung in the trees.
They were part of an antiabortion display he puts up three days a week outside the Women’s Medical Center on Broad Street.
“That said the whole thing,” he said. “You know what I’m saying? The baby suits waving in the trees.”
But Manning, 74, won’t remove his signs, as many as 11 at a time, some that depict bloody, dismembered fetuses.

I do sympathize with parents’ desire to preserve what innocence in their children they can:

The clinic, which provides medical services, including abortions, is at the corner of Betsey Williams Drive, a street with enough children to hold its own Halloween parade.
Bobby Raposa sees the display from behind his picket fence. “I don’t like it at all,” he said, motioning toward his daughter, who was playing in the yard. “She shouldn’t have to learn this at age five, but I have to explain this because these people have pictures of dead babies on the street.”

The town would have a right to demand that pornographic posters be removed, even if they were displayed in protest of a bordello. (Of course, for the time being, such a business would be operating illegally; perhaps if Rhode Island’s sex workers unionize…) I’d also speak against a thrice-weekly open-air presentation of graphic images of terrorists’ beheaded victims, for example. But Mr. Manning does have a point:

Told of the neighbor’s concerns that children were seeing his signs, he motioned toward the clinic and said: “I understand. I relate. But there are children being killed in here. If you go on a scale of things, one is much worse.”

If a business were somehow legally euthanizing disabled kindergarteners, would our focus really be on protesters’ inappropriate signage? Of course, the broader society wouldn’t need graphic images to be disgusted by such a thing (at least not at present); the act itself screams in bold letters. Which makes me wonder whether Mr. Manning oughtn’t apply the same principle to abortion. How about one big sign with bold letters reading:

There are children being killed in here.

That would avoid the reflexive turning away, and personally, I would find it much more shocking, in its bare truth. It would also force those who object to address the message itself, not its delivery — unless they were to do so by requesting that it not be so blunt. That, actually, is one disturbing aspect of the Providence Journal’s report:

Elizabeth and Peter McStay were working in the yard in front of their house, white with green shutters. Peter McStay said, “it’s a tough thing. It’s a free country, but you don’t have the right to infringe upon my way of life.”

Exactly wrong. We can only allow ours to be a free country to the extent that we have the right to infringe upon each other’s way of life. Put differently, we can only dislodge government authority from the capillaries of our personal lives if we are allowed to influence each other through other means — if we are free, as individuals, to get as far under each other’s skin as the boundary between public and private will permit.
Me, I find it a discouraging sign that the apparent compromise between Manning and the town was to sacrifice the symbolism of flapping baby clothes for the gratuity of photographic gore.

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19 years ago

Elizabeth and Peter McStay’s comment is a very self centered example of one major problem we all have in this country.
When I drive down a street and see a bumper sticker that has a major cuss word on it I want to take a can of spray paint and cover the word. I think about the mentality of the driver to put the word on his car where young children can read it. I wonder if this persons parents are proud of him or her.
But I do not spray paint over it. I allow this person to “infringe upon my way of life” and I end up praying, “Lord, Bless their pointy little head.”
I will allow them freedom to irritate me with obscene language because I know that I have the same right to irritate them with a call to a change of heart.

Anthony Maselli
Anthony Maselli
18 years ago

These pro-lifers have every right to protest. But, it is entirely unacceptable to put such pictures on public display. If these activists were as dedicated as the health centers that they so vehemently attack, they might try starting up private educational programs. But no, these people think that they can take the shortcut. If the only work they are putting in to this effort is enlarging pictures they found on the internet to make signs, then they are certainly not dedicated to their cause. Protest isn’t the way to bring about real change. It’s just a way to stir up anger.

Justin Katz
18 years ago

By what standard is it unacceptable, Anthony? Certainly not the standard of Hollywood and the marketing industry. Ought we to censor all objectionable material, or just religious — more specifically, conservatively religious — material in the public square?
As for the health centers, you’re not suggesting that everybody who works at them is doing so on a volunteer basis, are you? Planned Parenthood, for example, is big business, not a charity.

Jenn Miller
Jenn Miller
18 years ago

I agree with Anthony that Joe Manning is just trying to stir up anger.
The standard of unacceptablity is that where pornographic magazines cannot be placed where children can see them. The children of Edgewood are offered no such protection from Joe Mannings obscene pictures.

Justin Katz
18 years ago

But Jenn, from where do we derive a standard for “pornography,” in this sense? Should we ban lingerie advertisements? How about posters for frightening movies? What’s the standard?
Note that I’m not necessarily agreeing with Manning’s methods. As I said, though, I find it curious that the town banned a symbolic display, but not a graphic one. Again: what’s the standard?

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