Image and Idea


Washington -- President Bush's anti-abortion stand, or as some would have it, the lack thereof, is said to have put him in trouble.

It's true that he has created lots of confusion by backing a rigid anti-abortion plank in his party's platform and at the same time saying he'd "stand by" his granddaughter if she was determined to have an abortion. To add to the confusion, his vice president has made a similar remark and Mrs. Bush has gone even further.

Obviously, leadership and mixed signals don't mix. Yet, much as it pains me to say so, abortion-wobbling won't do him any harm in the coming election. It may even help him.

The reasons are clear enough. Those of us who abhor abortion have nowhere else to go. We can't in conscience boycott the election, since that would only give the "pro-choice" candidate that many more votes and maybe put him in office. But many voters are as ambivalent about abortion as Mr. Bush seems to be and can identify with his position, wobbly as it is.

This so-called "mushy middle" is a majority. Why do most Americans feel about abortion the way our president feels, or talks? Why do they want to stop the torrent of abortions -- more than 1.5 million every year -- yet agree abortion should be somehow available? And since that's the way most Americans feel, what can be done to persuade them that they're wrong?

The key to the answer was given 2,300 years ago by Aristotle when he remarked that every idea is accompanied by an image. His point is that because we're flesh-and-blood human beings and not angels, mere abstractions mean little to us unless we attach a picture to them.

Now the image that accompanies the idea of abortion in the minds of most Americans is -- well, I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it can't convey the reality, a reality so brutal that to describe it here would be deemed offensive. Perhaps the least distasteful way of conveying it is found in the slogan, "Abortion stops a beating heart."

While slogans have been an instrument of government from the Roman Empire onward, nothing beats a photograph for putting reality across. Above my desk is a color photo of a beautiful baby, with delicate features and a full head of dark hair. He -- you can barely make the child out to be male, though the abdomen has been ripped open from groin to rib cage -- is lying among refuse beneath the open door of an incinerator where a workman had rescued him from the final indignity of being treated as garbage.

I have kept the photo above my desk to make sure that I remember what abortion is, to make sure that it remains more than a word, and to make sure that I remain, in the none-too-complimentary words of a former Bush aide, "rabidly pro-life."

Because I believe the principles that forged this nation continue to inspire us, I believe that if such photographs were put before the American people, legalized abortion would soon be an unhappy memory. No argument about a woman's choice, or even a woman's right, could withstand the brutal and pitiful reality of a dead baby before our eyes. I probably should add that the earlier the abortion, the more horrendous the result.

Photographs of aborted babies are not seen in newspapers or on TV. This is partly because of a journalistic rule barring offensive material, but another and less idealistic reason is also at work here. People who call themselves pro-choice -- and it has been demonstrated that most editors fall into that category -- are reluctant to let the reality of abortion be known. Some adamantly oppose putting the information before the American people. This taboo may constitute the most momentous cover-up in our history.

But the cover is curling around the edges. Candidates for Congress in Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado and California have run TV ads showing aborted fetuses. Efforts to stop them in the federal courts have failed. Two scored upset wins in the primaries, while a third is running as an independent. In Maine, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean, a Republican candidate for the House, is considering them for her campaign. Has the taboo been broken?

If so, it might have an effect that everybody should welcome: finishing off abortion as a political issue. Then George Bush wouldn't have to wobble, at least not on this subject. We could then vote the way we want without worrying about something that never should have become political in the first place.

Patrick Riley is director of the Washington office of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and teaches at Catholic University's School of Philosophy. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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