A picture worth a thousand tears

Cynthia L. H. Crawley

October 13, 1993|By Cynthia L. H. Crawley

THE piercing cries that send every mother running to her child forced me upright in my bed. I went quickly into the room, took the sobbing child into my arms and tried to calm her.

"Did you have another bad dream, honey?" I asked.

She clung to me, terrified, unable to speak, and nodded, the tears slowing now, her anguished sounds reduced to an intermittent hiccup. This had been the third night like this in two weeks, and I had yet to get a coherent answer from her.

"Why do they do that to those animals, Mommy? Why are those people so mean?" she asked.

"What animals, baby? Mommy doesn't understand. Can you tell me what is bothering you?"

"Those people, with the pictures," she hiccupped. "We saw them, today, in the car."

Saw something in the car? Pictures of animals? What is she trying to say? Oh, dear God, I realized. The abortion protesters on Charles Street. We drove past them twice this afternoon on our way to and from the grocery store. She is talking about their protest signs, the ones with the photographs of abortions that they hold up when people drive by. How do I answer her?

"Oh sweetie," I said soothingly, "don't worry about those pictures. They aren't hurt animals. They're just pictures. Those people on the street want to . . . ." How do I tell a 4-year-old what those pictures are? I thought about this. Those pictures are the stuff of nightmares: larger-than-life color photographs of aborted fetuses held up to a car passenger's eye level. It's been easy for me as a driver to ignore them, but I never considered what an awful sight these things must have been for my young daughter.

This sudden understanding of her terror filled me with anger and further convinced me of my long-held suspicion that anti-abortion protesters care little for fetuses after they are live born babies -- and even less for the women who choose to have an abortion. Those people are hurting my baby in their efforts to protect unborn babies, I realized.

Why should those protesters with their photographs be permitted to terrify small children with their roadside protest? Do they care only for the rights of fetuses? What of the rights of the living? Why should seeing, thinking children be traumatized by obscenities such as these?

Obscenity is exactly the correct comparison, I decided. Those photographs of fetal skull fragments and tiny dismembered limbs are every bit as obscene as any pornographic pictures. Pornography by definition includes images, often violent, that demean individuals and present them as objects, as mere body parts on display. These pictures of abortions trivialize and demean the potential lives the protesters are supposedly trying to protect and defend.

The Supreme Court has considered obscenity issues since 1942 and has consistently ruled that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. In the 1964 ruling known as Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart said that he knew obscenity when he saw it and appeared to invite groups and individuals to request clarification on this complicated issue.

In the 1978 decision, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the court ruled that restrictions on obscene language on television may be made during the hours when children might be exposed to it. More recently, Congress has held hearings with representatives of the major television networks asking for their voluntary cooperation by restricting violence in programming out of concern for children. When asked in a 1992 survey about freedom of speech, 77 percent of the American public said the media do not have unrestricted freedom to run graphic photographs of violent events.

What is the difference between violent images on television and violent images on Charles Street?

There is support for my opinion. In 1957, the Supreme Court case, Roth v. United States, established what has become known as the "Roth standard" for determining obscenity. Two of its critical points involve contemporary community standards and a determination that the material in question is without redeeming social value. The court also has ruled generally in favor of individuals petitioning for the right not to listen to nuisance noise. What about the right not to see disturbing images on city streets?

Zechariah Chafee, a First Amendment scholar, noted that the public gets as much freedom of speech as it wants. I wonder how many people really believe that those who display photographs of abortions on city streets are exercising freedom of speech. Whose community standard is this? Do these pictures have redeeming social value?

I looked down at my precious child, sleeping quietly in her bed, untroubled now, and made a promise to her. I would fight this battle, whatever effort was necessary. I would find a way to take these obscenities off the streets where innocent little children can see them.

And the fight has begun. I have made telephone calls and written letters to local legislators. Some will not return my calls or answer my letters. Some say this is not their area of expertise or concern. A few have expressed their support and have begun inquiries into this affront to our community. I encourage anyone who shares my concern to write or telephone legislators. Let this issue be a rallying point for concerned people. Like every female of every mammalian species, I will fight anything and anyone to protect my young.

Cynthia L.H. Crawley writes from Ruxton.

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