“I figured if he was there, I’d make sure he wasn’t there [again],” Harlan Drake, a 33-year-old truck driver, told Det. Sgt. Scott Shenk of the Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Department. But on the morning of September 11, 2009, James Pouillon was there, sitting across the street from Owosso High School as he had on so many other mornings. And so Harlan Drake stopped his car, pulled a .45 out of a bag, carefully took aim, and shot Pouillon. “He was still moving so I shot him one more time. I aimed under the ribcage going up toward the heart.”
Alana Beamish, who had just dropped her son off at school, attempted to save Pouillon’s life, but it was too late. The 63-year-old died on the ground.
Drake murdered another man, Mike Fuoss, that day, and went in search of a third, James Howe, intending to kill him, too. Caught a few hours later, Drake told Detective Sergeant Shenk that “he was going to make our job very easy.” He confessed to both murders, and from then until his trial ended in a guilty verdict on March 11, Harlan Drake expressed no remorse.
Mike Fuoss’s name was little more than a footnote in most media coverage of that fateful day in Owosso, Michigan. It was the murder of Pouillon that captured the nation’s attention. As Drake told Detective Sergeant Shenk, “I asked [Pouillon] over the years not to do that in front of the kids. A little kid shouldn’t have to look at that.”
Was Pouillon a pervert, an exhibitionist? No: Through his decades-long stakeout at Owosso High School and numerous other places throughout the city and county, Pouillon intended not to victimize children but to save them from the horrors of abortion. Harlan Drake claimed that he had no problem with that message; it was the medium that Pouillon used that convinced Drake to put an end to Pouillon’s life: “I’m not against anti-abortion. I’m against showing little kids those pictures.”
Those pictures were three- and four-foot-high graphic photographs of bloodied, dismembered unborn children—the “product” of abortions. Drake wasn’t the only resident of Owosso who objected to Pouillon’s tactics. In a community that is largely pro-life, Pouillon found few defenders. Why? Because, as the Associated Press reported on February 23, Pouillon “was everywhere—the farmers market, City Hall, the county courthouse, football games—with verbal taunts that were as shocking as his signs.”
As Pouillon’s barber told the AP, “I had no problem with his message. He was just overboard with it. He knew how to push buttons on people, but Jim didn’t deserve to be executed on the sidewalk.” A local woman interviewed by the AP went even further: “I don’t agree with someone taking someone’s life . . . But I don’t miss the man on the corner or his foul mouth. He would chase you, call you names. He was evil. His pictures were so gross.”
One does not have to draw a moral equivalence between murder and a pro-life protest, no matter how unsettling the tactics used, to see a disturbing parallel between the two men. Their shared conviction that extreme measures are justified “for the sake of the children” left one man dead and the other in prison for life. But what, in the end, did either man accomplish?
Those of us who oppose abortion and support pro-life measures need not give Harlan Drake a second thought, except perhaps to utter a prayer for his conversion. But can we learn any lessons from James Pouillon’s tragic end?
The images that Pouillon used are being increasingly adopted by pro-lifers—a sign, perhaps, of desperation, as the years since Roe v. Wade continue to tick by, with only minor and occasional declines in the number of abortions in the United States, from 1.4 million to 1.2 million per year, every year, for over 37 years.
Thus the excitement in the pro-life movement in early October 2009 when the New York Times published an article on its Lens blog by reporter Damien Cave, who had covered the murder of Pouillon and attended his memorial service in Owosso. “Behind the Scenes: Picturing Fetal Remains” is the first serious and extended examination in the mainstream media of the use of such images in pro-life protests.
Cave interviewed Monica Migliorino Miller, the director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society and a theology professor at Madonna University, a Franciscan school in Livonia, Michigan. Mrs. Miller estimates that half of the images of aborted children that are used in pro-life protests are pictures that she took, starting in 1987.
What is most interesting about Mrs. Miller’s story is her understanding of what she hoped to accomplish. From the beginning, she told Mr. Cave, her purpose was “journalistic”: “We felt it was very important to make a record of the reality of abortion.”
Yet “Over time,” Cave writes,
her views on which images are appropriate have evolved. She no longer sees gory pictures showing blood or organs as acceptable. She has tried harder to shoot younger fetuses, because that’s when most abortions take place, and she said she also believes that the most graphic images should not be deliberately directed at children because “they can’t intellectualize what they’re seeing.”
And yet an increasing number of pro-lifers who use such images justify deliberately targeting children by arguing that it is too late for adults (we have already made up our minds about abortion), while children are (as one put it) “not yet in that horrible fog.” And some even defend the use of such images by attacking the moral character of teenagers en masse. Because some teenagers engage in premarital sex, and some portion of those who do have sex get pregnant, and some portion of those who do get pregnant have abortions, all children—including those who would not have an abortion if they were to get pregnant from the sex that they are not having—should be exposed to these terrifying sights.
As parents, we have an obligation to protect our children from the violence of abortion. But confronting them with such images accomplishes exactly the opposite: It draws them into the reality of abortion in a way that can do great damage to developing minds and souls.
For her second thoughts, Mrs. Miller is now being criticized by some of those who have used her pictures the longest. Flip Benham, director of Operation Rescue/Operation Save America, told Cave that Mrs. Miller’s current stance is “a nice sentimental argument. What’s important is truth to us; that this is the truth.”
There is something to be learned from the difference in the language that Mrs. Miller and Mr. Benham use. Perhaps it can be ascribed to Mrs. Miller’s training in theology, but her description of her photos as a “record of the reality of abortion” is accurate, while Mr. Benham’s claim that “this is the truth” is not.
This is not a mere semantic quibble. In the modern world, we often use the word truth as if it were synonymous with reality, but in Christian theology, as in classical philosophy, truth has a more limited, and more elevated, meaning. Abortion, by definition, is untruth; it is the destruction of the truth of human nature and of the created order. It is a direct assault not only on the child who is being torn apart, limb from limb, but on the God Who declared to the prophet Jeremiah, in that verse so familiar to pro-lifers, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5, RSV).
What happens when we dwell on untruth, when we constantly expose ourselves and others to it, even with the best of intentions? We become inured to the reality of that untruth. The shock and the horror that we experienced when first confronted with pictures of aborted children dissipate; we need even more graphic images in order to excite the same feelings of revulsion.
We can see this in an anecdotal way in a picture that the New York Times ran alongside a front-page story, also by Mr. Cave, in the October 9, 2009, print edition. At a prayer vigil for Mr. Pouillon in Owosso in September, in front of a camper plastered with signs that read “Mommy, why do they want to kill me?” and “Abortion=Murder: The same by any name,” several young girls stand talking. One, a pretty blond-haired girl perhaps 10 or 12 years old, has a broad smile on her face—while a foot or so behind her hangs a four- or five-foot image of a bloodied, mangled baby on a white sheet stained with more blood.
Mrs. Miller is right: “[T]hey can’t intellectualize what they’re seeing.” What they can do, what they will do, is compartmentalize it, become desensitized, confuse the reality of evil with truth.
That very confusion today afflicts the broader pro-life movement—even those who would never dream of using these graphic photos. Abortion has become a moral “issue”; a political “question”; a cultural “problem” to be solved. It has taken on a life of its own, separate from Christian teaching. Indeed, when pro-abortion zealots claim that opposition to abortion is simply an attempt to impose Christian morality, the usual response of Christian pro-lifers today is to point to Jewish and Muslim and even atheist pro-lifers, to declare that abortion is a matter of “civil rights” or “human rights,” to compare it to slavery and point out that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece is a pro-lifer, to decry the unequal impact that abortion for sex selection has on unborn baby girls and to argue that any true feminist must, for that reason alone, be pro-life.
What few will do is simply say, “Yes. And what of it?” At the time of Christ, both chemical and mechanical abortion were practiced in the Roman world; by the time that Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, and for well over a millennium afterward in the Western world, such practices were shunned. How did that change come about? Through graphic representations of Flip Benham’s “truth” of abortion? By petitioning the Roman Senate to outlaw such practices? No: It occurred through the widespread conversion of Romans to Christianity.
The Didache, the first-century document known to early Christians as the teaching of the Twelve Apostles, declared that “There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death”; those who would follow the Way of Life that Christian converts had embraced “shall not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide.” Why? Because such practices violate “universal human rights”? Because they are akin to the slavery that was commonplace in the ancient world? Because they make women no more than sex objects for men?
No. Such actions were to be avoided because they are the Way of Death, not of Life; they are untruth, and thus opposed to the Truth that will set us free.
Some may object that the civil-rights and human-rights and slavery and feminism arguments carry weight today, while Christianity does not. How can we expect to win the fight against abortion if we cannot even get people to listen to us?
But what exactly is it that we are fighting against? Better yet, what exactly is it that we are fighting for? Abortion is not simply a cause of our civilizational decline, though it is that; more importantly, it is a symptom—a symptom, first and foremost, of the increasing destruction of Christianity from within.
In Casti connubi, his 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage, Pope Pius XI speaks of the proper role of the state in upholding the teachings of the Church, but he never loses sight of the fact that “the family is more sacred than the State and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for Heaven and eternity.” That is why there can never be a purely political solution to a cultural problem; if we put our trust in princes who have forgotten that God is the source of their authority, then our trust is likely to be betrayed when the teachings of the Faith threaten to bridle their passion for political power.
The solution is for the Church to play the role that She played in the conversion of the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages. As Pius XI writes,
For the preservation of the moral order neither the laws and sanctions of the temporal power are sufficient, nor is the beauty of virtue and the expounding of its necessity. Religious authority must enter in to enlighten the mind, to direct the will, and to strengthen human frailty by the assistance of divine grace. Such an authority is found nowhere save in the Church instituted by Christ the Lord.
But surely the hour is too late; the day is too dark; we cannot spare the time necessary to convert the masses. Every year, 1.3 million children are murdered; are we simply to throw them to the wolves?
Of course not. But our time and attention are necessarily limited, and we need to focus on preventing abortions where they actually occur—not in the halls of Congress, or the Oval Office, or the chamber of the Supreme Court, but in the abortuaries and hospitals of our hometowns.
The unabashedly Christian 40 Days for Life campaign, held in towns and cities across the United States the past three Lenten seasons, is a perfect example of the kind of pro-life action that can and does make a difference. Volunteers take turns holding vigil, praying the rosary and offering other prayers of intercession for the women entering the abortuaries, the men who brought them there, the children whose lives are being snuffed out before they even see the light of day, and even the “doctors” and “nurses” who perform and assist in the act of murder. The faithful offer sidewalk counseling, directing women who have doubts about their actions to crisis-pregnancy centers and even, in some cases, opening their own homes to frightened women and girls who thought they had nowhere else to turn.
Political measures can be undone, but every child whom we save becomes a living witness—an icon—of the love of God and a testimony that we Christians live what we preach. Focusing on what we can accomplish, rather than on what we have failed to accomplish over the course of 37 years, will allow us to begin to turn the debate around.
Remembering that our opposition to abortion is not separate from our belief in Christ is but the first step. Simply urging mothers to “Choose Life” will not end abortion on the mass scale that we see it practiced today; bringing them to the One Who is the Way and the Truth and the Life will. Rome wasn’t converted in a day, and the United States will not be, either. But she will never be converted as long as our actions lead others to believe that we value the cause of life more than the Way of Life.
On the last day of His earthly life, Christ stood before Pontius Pilate and declared, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Beholding the Creator of the world and the Savior of mankind, His body bruised by the blows of the servants of the high priest and His face covered with their spittle, Pilate responded, “What is truth?”
The bruises and the spittle were reality, but they obscured the truth that Pilate sought. And in the end, he sent that Truth away to be crucified—the same Truth Who, through His Resurrection, wrought the conversion of the Roman Empire and even, some traditions say, of Pontius Pilate himself.
We can end abortion in the United States in the same way that Christians ended abortion in the Roman Empire: by finding our hope in the Truth of the Gospel, rather than despairing in the reality of evil.
This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Portions of this article previously appeared in the Wanderer and on the About.Com GuideSite to Catholicism (Catholicism.About.Com).