What the Pro-Life Movement Has Learned From Facebook

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 22 2014 7:26 PM

Bringing Up Baby

Pro-lifers are trading bloody fetus photos for a kindler, gentler message. Will it work?

March for Life
Pro-life activists participate in the annual March for Life on Jan. 22, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Groups like the Family Research Council are shifting away from grusome imagery and focusing on babies and adoption.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Mark Zuckerberg, no matter what his political views, has become one of the most important people to the pro-life movement,” says Joe Carter. “He’s given us the tool to create the pro-life context.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It’s Wednesday morning at the Washington headquarters of the Family Research Council. A small but growing crowd of pro-lifers, groggy but quickened by coffee and freezing cold, is trickling into a conference room for the ninth annual ProLifeCon. When the pep rally is over, they will join tens of thousands of comrades for the annual March for Life.

Carter, a thoughtful Mike Huckabee campaign veteran who now works with the Southern Baptist Convention, is delivering the antithesis of a pep talk. “Activists have an image problem,” he explains. “When people think of activists, they think of people who are militant, unhygienic, and eccentric.”

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Over to one corner, listening to this, is the man who drives a “truth truck” covered in anti-abortion slogans and pictures of broken fetuses around Washington. The man, whose name is Ronald Brock, sips his coffee.

“I bet I could go into any one of your Facebook accounts and within 30 posts I could find a picture of a baby,” says Carter. “We see pictures of babies daily—sometimes, even hourly. Babies have become as ubiquitous on Facebook as cats are on YouTube. They have created a more pro-life context.” Carter remembers how his Facebook feed covered the 2013 trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion doctor who performed illegal procedures (and was convicted of murdering three infants) in a retch-inducing, blood-soaked office. “In one post, there was a post of a mother holding a baby and in the post below was a story about the murders.”

The lesson of all this, according to Carter, is that turning America against abortion is going to require less doom and more Disney. “We don't need to do this by showing bloody fetuses to get a gag reflex,” he says. “We need to do this by invoking our neighbors’ natural love for children. We do this by showing babies as natural parts of our lives.”

If anyone disagrees, none say so. The March for Life, which commemorates every anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, is friendlier and more media-ready than ever. Most people credit that to the leadership of Jeanne Monahan, dubbed a “photogenic, warm former federal government policy worker”—yes, another one of those—by the Washington Post. Anti-abortion activists are acutely aware of both how the press portrays them and what the ascendant libertarian/business faction of the Republican Party thinks of them.

They’re aware, and they want to prove the squishes wrong. Last year’s theme was “40 = 55m,” as in the years since Roe and the number of abortions carried out under its guidelines. This year’s theme is the glory of adoption. At the Family Research Council, where security guard Leo Johnson stopped a crazed gunman with a backpack full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches from martyring the staff (an inspiring shrine to him stands in the foyer), the emphasis is on not on condemning sinners. It’s how to persuade people who are probably ready to agree with the cause.

So we hear from Brian Fisher, the founder of Online for Life, who is beamed in over video. He walks us through the success of his group’s Facebook account and through an app that alerts users when someone has called one of 45 mobile pregnancy resource centers. “Someone considering abortion in Los Angeles just contacted a PRC,” reads one alert. These centers have been pilloried by pro-choice advocates for years, as has legislation requiring women see ultrasounds before having abortions, as have longer waiting periods—as have the all legislative wins racked up in states since 2011.

Pro-lifers are told that this makes them look obsessive and that they are fighting a “war on women.” Their response, as of today, is to accentuate all the positives of life while asking pro-choicers how they can be so gruesome. This is the thinking behind a resolution that will come before the Republican National Committee at its winter meeting, happening this week. It does not mention Roe—the party platform already pledges to overturn Roe, eventually. It just runs down poll numbers to prove that people really love babies and argues that “staying silent fails to alert voters to the Democrats' extreme pro-abortion stances, which voters are repelled by.”

The resolution will be introduced by Ellen Barrosse, a board member of American Principles Project. Frank Cannon, who runs that group, points to its 2013 “GOP autopsy” for evidence that the abortion issue can be spun against Democrats. That report was conceived as a direct riposte to the RNC’s own autopsy report.

“If you agree to truce strategy where you don't define your opponent’s position on abortion, it keeps your voters from galvanizing and being out there,” says Cannon. “It convinces people in the middle you're not serious. If you have no affirmative position and let Democrats ask you about rape and incest, then you're vulnerable. But if you’re dealing with actual legislation, and it’s legislation that people like, then the Democrats are vulnerable.”

The RNC doesn’t disagree. Chairman Reince Priebus carved out time from the RNC winter meeting to let committee members bus down to the Mall and participate in the March for Life. He makes a very brief appearance at the Family Research Council, chastening a (mostly absent) media for covering the RNC’s pro-life moves as something new or dangerous. “We’re the pro-life party,” he says. “This should not be earth-shattering news, that the RNC is supporting the March for Life. Obviously, people were very appreciative of what we did, but I thought it was very natural. I want to make you proud of this party. If you don’t stand for the things you say you believe in, you know, there’s not much value in an organization.”

A few more speeches, an update from Rick Santorum—who is wearing a jersey from the University of Dubuque and reminding March for Lifers that he won 11 states in the last primary—and it’s off to the Mall.* I run into Ronald Brock, who it turns out had no problem with the baby-photos-not-bloody-photos pitch. “We should use the photos that show the positive and the ones that show the ugly truth,” he says. “When I look at a picture and it bothers me to the point where my stomach is turning, I gotta use it.”

He heads into his “truth truck,” and that’s it for the mangled-fetus photos. The marchers prefer pictures of babies in the womb or newly born tykes smiling into the camera. One of them hoists an Elmo doll adorned with a PRO-LIFE sticker, moving it up and down as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tells the crowd that his House will ban taxpayer funding for abortion. I get out of range of a teenager who keeps alternately humming and singing the barricades tune from Les Miserables and end up talking to Doug Braendel, a pro-life activist from Pennsylvania’s rural Bedford county. He’s thrilled about how life-size models of fetuses at early stages of development can turn people away from abortion.

“A biology teacher in a high school had one of these models and kept it in his drawer with the pencils,” Braendel says. “He hadn’t done anything with it when some kid said, ‘Teacher, I don’t have a pencil.’ When he did that, he saw the model! And later, when a young lady was contemplating abortion, the kid took her to the pencil drawer and showed her the model. She didn’t do what, you know, she would have done.”

What hasn’t been effective? Braendel thinks about it. Republican-run Pennsylvania has actually passed two new anti-abortion laws, one that raises standards for clinics (thereby, hopefully, shuttering them) and one that bars health care plans in the exchanges from paying for abortions. But a bill to require ultrasounds for women who showed up at clinics sputtered, after “Planned Parenthood and the rest” made hay of Virginia’s transvaginal ultrasound bill. The lesson, according to Braendel, was that there was ever more reframing to do.

“Abortion is much more tantamount to rape than a vaginal ultrasound,” he says.

*Correction, Jan. 23, 2014: This article originally misstated that Rick Santorum was wearing a jersey from Davenport university. (Return.)