Images designed to shock can cause needless harm

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen July 2, 2002
Original Title: Apocalypse Now

Parents are forever vigilant protecting their young children from some of life’s harsher realities. It is indeed frustrating and indeed infuriating when parents encounter unexpected situations that expose their children to potentially deleterious actions and images. Their child-rearing timetable explodes. They have to now enter damage-control mode.

What control do parents have regarding the protection of their young children of horrific images or pictures in a public setting? I ask this because my seven year-old son told me the other day he saw “a picture of a baby with its head cut off.” The head in question lay next to the body.

This graphic image among a gamut of others was paraded to unsuspecting families and individuals at the Bank Street and Hunt Club Road intersection on Monday afternoon, June 24th. They were on large five foot high placards. The aim of this protest was to encourage support for the anti-abortion movement. My intent here is not to address the pros and cons of abortion, an issue that remains as unresolved as ever.

At what point does debate of an issue exceed societal norms? The focus is the effect these images have on unsuspecting individuals especially children. Let me repeat this: unsuspecting individuals.

I am now faced with a discussing an issue with my son that he is ill prepared to understand. It upsets my parental timetable. He witnessed images that I would not allow him to see on TV or in movies. Yet it seems it is perfectly acceptable for someone else to make this decision for me. TV programs and movies come with a rating system. There are warnings of graphic images and violence so parents can decide its appropriateness for their children’s viewing.

One mother recounts her encounter with this group. Most distressing to her was the effect it had on her children. “One year ago, I was driving down Merivale Road taking my kids to Toys R Us when we came upon a three block-long protest group. The people were each holding large posters depicting various stages of aborted fetus. Some held anti-abortion messages.

The fact that I was unable to even turn off of Merivale to take an alternate route made me feel like I was trapped in a fire. It was there that I was forced to answer the questions that came from my nine year-old son and 11 year-old daughter about why they were holding pictures of ‘broken babies’ and what was abortion. This was a discussion I had hoped to have when they were in their teens.”

The right to free speech does not imply that you can show children decapitated fetuses any time you would like. If this were a purely adult audience, I would have less of a problem with this. The assertion that the shock value of these demonstrations will provoke discussion is spurious. People are able to debate issues of conscience and morality without graphics.

Free speech does not mean you should stress and shock small children. Parents have the right to introduce difficult issues and morals to their children at times that they consider to be appropriate. Granted, they cannot be protected from all the world’s ills, but certainly deliberate actions such as these are not to be included in this set of life situations. My son still does not understand why these people showed those pictures.

If the aim of the demonstration was to convince people not to abort their pregnancies for the sake of the children, why is it acceptable to potentially harm those children who witnessed this event?

By all means take the time to prepare your case and present it to the public in a forum that is acceptable to all parties. This is not a new issue. It does not require the same immediacy for protest as with some political or civic events.

It would have been a completely different matter if this group had forewarned the public about their protest. Further due to the nature of the images, it would have been appropriate to hold it in a location away from children with notice that the presentation would be graphic in nature. At least it would have provided some measure of respect for the public by giving them a choice.

The anti-abortionist message is that life begins at conception: respect life. Why then are dead mutilated fetuses used as props? What ever happened to respecting human dignity? Some would claim that these photos demonstrate how human dignity is disrespected. This is an end-justifies-the-means argument and is rife with hypocrisy. Taking the high road is preferable.

Intruding on the parent’s ability to protect their children is a great way to provoke a most forceful defensive response. Deflector shields up! The debate is over.

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2002

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