The use of images of mothers and babies in the campaigns

The various ‘No’ campaigns tend to use photographs and videos of women with small babies or small children or women who are nine-months pregnant in their literature and posters. These images are powerful emotive campaigning devices.  They generate very powerful feelings on both sides of the referendum issue.  They can make people angry, ashamed, protective or confused.  

One way they work is by association. You see such images and have a good feeling about the mother and baby, and then you are supposed to associate that good feeling with the Eighth Amendment.  Perhaps you share the mother’s protective feeling towards that baby and are supposed to transfer that feeling to protecting the Eighth Amendment and protecting embryos and early-stage foetuses.  

Perhaps too you are supposed to contrast these images with the idea of a woman or girl terminating a pregnancy. One is good; so we may be encouraged to think that the other is bad.  Are these images trying to use the contrast between the good feelings associated with motherhood and the complicated feelings associated with unwanted pregnancy to cast shame on women and girls who terminate a pregnancy?

Aside from their power to generate emotional responses do pictures like these have any relevance in considering the referendum decision?  Nine-month foetuses, new born babies or toddlers like the ones in these images are not at any risk of losing their lives if the Eighth Amendment is repealed; so that can’t be the point of the images.   Nor can the point be about how the Eighth Amendment enables these children to be born in the first place.  Although this is an argument that is used by ‘No’ campaigners, it applies equally (if it applies at all) to grown-ups, and we don’t see images of grown-ups with their mothers in the campaigns.  

Perhaps the idea that these images are trying to communicate is that embryos and early-stage foetuses that are destroyed when a pregnancy is terminated are in some relevant way like babies and small children.   Like babies and small children they depend for their continued life on their mothers and carers.  If we accept that this dependence means that embryos and early-stage foetuses are vulnerable in a way that demands our protection, then we seem to have the argument that these images are aiming to express.

Once the argument is stated rather than merely hinted at in images of mothers and babies it can be examined properly.  If you didn’t think that embryos and early-stage foetuses were yet human beings with the same status as babies and children then you would not think that the issue of vulnerability and protection was the same as the one that applied to babies and small children.  Certainly there are plenty of relevant disanalogies between embryos and foetuses on the one hand and babies and toddlers on the other.  They have very different capacities as life forms - including the very basic capacity of independent viability. Also embryos and foetuses are not interacted with in family life; they have not yet been introduced into any community of relationships in the way babies have.  The question of whether these differences mean that embryos and foetuses have not yet started what we would think of as a meaningful life which would then be stopped by the termination of pregnancy is not one that images of mothers and babies can help us answer.

You might still find the termination of pregnancy upsetting but not think that this by itself decides the question of whether the Eight Amendment is the right way for the State to respond.  Most of us have quite personal feelings associated with these images.  But it is not at all clear that these feelings really inform the debate on the referendum issue.  Whatever the merits of the argument, the photographs and videos of mothers and babies, toddlers and nine-month old foetuses do not help us to assess it.