Surprise: Times Shows Respect to Pro-Life Demonstrators
Reporter Damien Cave's 2,200-word front-page story Saturday was notable for the respect he showed a particular group of aggressive political demonstrators that don't garner plaudits from the media - pro-lifers (or as the Times' style book insists, "anti-abortion" protesters): "Abortion Foes Tell of Journey To the Streets - Seeking Confrontation, and Fellowship."
The dateline is Owosso, Mich., the town where pro-life protester James Pouillon was shot dead last month while holding a sign outside a school.
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.
"Jim suffered the persecution for us," said Dan Brewer, who recalls swearing at Mr. Pouillon during one of his one-man protests in the '90s, only to join him later after becoming a born-again Christian. "Now we just have to go out and do it."
To critics, like Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, these protesters look like bullies bent on harassment. Among those who share their views but not their tactics, street activists have been marginalized as attention hogs who prefer to attract outrage rather than inspiring compassion.
In the case of Mr. Pouillon, that outrage may have led to death. The police said the man charged in the killing, Harlan J. Drake, a local truck driver, was bothered by the signs Mr. Pouillon showed children as they came to school. The day he was shot, Mr. Pouillon was showing a mangled fetus, part of an almost daily effort to put abortion into the minds of his neighbors. "It's all about the eyes," he used to say to fellow demonstrators. "It's all about the eyes."
But as the personal stories of Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Brewer and Ms. Anderson suggest, the motivations of many protesters are more complicated. They see 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.
Cave actually talked to some of the protesters to capture their rationale for what they do, like Deborah Anderson:
"I'm an unwanted child," she said, standing at a vigil for James Pouillon with an anti-abortion poster peeling from overuse. "My mother couldn't find a back-alley abortionist, so she gave me up for adoption."
She was 18 months old. Her sister was 4, and their adoptive mother, Ms. Anderson and her sister said in interviews, turned out to be abusive.
Childhood in their suburb of Detroit was defined by broken bones beneath frilly dresses, she said. The girls ran away when they could, but when friends or the local priest visited, Ms. Anderson said, their mother chained them to poles in the basement.
"I learned to bite and kick and scream," she said.
That gusto for the fight is a highly valued trait in protester circles. Mr. Pouillon earned kudos for standing with anti-abortion signs even while attached to an oxygen tank. Ms. Anderson also told stories of long, cold protests, insults and jail (after being arrested at Notre Dame in May when President Obama spoke).
Cave's also posted some graphic photos of the aftermath of abortion on the paper's photography blog, a slideshow titled "Behind the Scenes: Picturing Fetal Remains." The photos brought many commenters to the Times' usually sedate "Lens" blog, with pro-choice readers saying the pictures had no business being posted and conservatives saying they couldn't believe they were seeing this from the New York Times. Cave introduced the photos, which came from an anti-abortion protester:
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?
Cave met Monica Migliorino Miller at a memorial service for Pouillon.
A theology professor at Madonna University and the director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, she said she had firsthand experience retrieving fetuses after abortions and photographing them. When we met two days later in her university office, she handed me proof: a series of 4-by-6-inch prints that she shot, which have been turned into portraits by Stephen McGee.
Cave was not uncritical, questioning at length the provenance of one image, "Malachi," described as perhaps the anti-abortion movement's most famous photo. Still, the fact that such pictures appeared at nytimes.com is a little shocking, in a welcome way for social conservatives.