Let me start with this: there is simply not a political or moral issue about which I feel more conflicted than abortion. As a feminist, I cannot imagine anything more basic or fundamental than a woman’s right to make the most essential decisions regarding her health, her body, or reproduction. Seen from that perspective, I would likely define myself as pro-choice. I likewise believe that the preservation of human life is of paramount importance. And whatever we may think of a human fetus, it is incontestably human. It might become a fully formed human being, with all the rights and privileges we humans grant to other humans. From that perspective, I suppose I would also have to label myself pro-life.
As you’re probably aware, an anti-abortion group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress conducted a sting operation intended to discredit, and if possible, destroy Planned Parenthood. Actors secretly taped meetings with at least four officials with Planned Parenthood, portraying themselves as researchers seeking tissue from aborted fetuses to be used for medical research. The meetings were then heavily and misleadingly edited to create the impression that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal tissue, and that these conversations were basically negotiations over price. The Center for Medical Progress released the edited videos on YouTube, and they created a sensation. They are exceptionally difficult to watch. The Planned Parenthood doctors come across very badly. They seem callous to the point of inhumanity.
I have not watched the longer videos, the raw material from which the YouTube videos were edited. Fortunately, Sarah Kliff, a first-rate journalist with a background in the relevant legal issues involved, has watched them. Here’s her report:
The videos are sting videos that are designed to smear Planned Parenthood. The unedited footage shows the fake buyers actively attempting to make the discussions look worse for the hapless Planned Parenthood staffers. The Center for Medical Progress argues that these videos show the organization was selling fetal tissue for profit — which is, to be clear, a crime. But abortion clinics are allowed to receive compensation for any time spent procuring fetal tissue — for example, the extra time a staff member has to spend getting consent to donate or the work a lab technician does identifying specific types of tissue. Planned Parenthood says this is all the videos show, and for the most part they’re right. It’s routinely the fake buyers, not Planned Parenthood, who move the discussion toward money.
Planned Parenthood is an organization that believes it can do good in the world by procuring fetal tissue for medical researchers. Their critics find fetal tissue research self-evidently repugnant. To a large degree, what you think of the videos comes down to what you think of the fraught topic of fetal tissue research. But there are also moments that should give supporters of the women’s health provider pause — moments when officials with the group seem to haggle over fetal tissue compensation and appear to make women’s health a secondary priority. These are moments that do not appear any less troublesome when watched in the full video. They are not simply a product of biased editing — and, if anything, the biased editing is making them too easy for Planned Parenthood’s supporters to ignore.
Of course, as Kliff also notes, the main impact of these videos is emotional. These leisurely lunches, in nice restaurants, with well-dressed people chatting casually about fetal tissue over a glass of wine; well, these people seem monstrous. It’s hardly surprising that Republicans in Congress have introduced bills intended to de-fund Planned Parenthood.
So that’s one emotional reaction. But there’s another strong emotional response possible, and it’s the one I experienced recently while watching the recent Republican Presidential debate. Mike Huckabee seriously argued that a fetus should be given all the rights of citizenship, and protected via the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Scott Walker’s stance on this issue is to make all abortions illegal, without exceptions for pregnancies that were the result of rape or incest, and without exceptions for instances where the mother’s life is in jeopardy. Think about that. Let’s suppose that a woman presents at a hospital with an ectopic pregnancy. A fertilized egg has attached inside a fallopian tube. There are both surgical and medical treatments possible, but there is no possibility of saving the fetus. And the patient will die without medical treatment. The ‘no exceptions’ stance of many of the Republican candidates would, taken to their logical conclusions, condemn that woman to death.
This is an issue about which it’s difficult to the point of impossibility to have a calm, objective, rational conversation. If one believes that humanity begins with conception, then an organization like Planned Parenthood, which does perform abortions, is essentially engaged in the murder of babies. At the same time, a great many fetuses spontaneously abort in what we prefer to call miscarriages. If, as some claim, God regards every fertilized egg as a human life, then forgive me for suggesting that God is remarkably cavalier with human lives.
Let’s instead keep the uneasy truce that Roe v. Wade created, in which first trimester abortions are all legal, and in which the state’s interest in protecting the fetus begins with viability. And let’s also admit this truth: abortion is much more a tragedy than it is a sin. Is it possible to, not allow abortions, but limit the number that actually occur?
First, let’s admit this reality: if Planned Parenthood were completely de-funded, if it ceased to exist, that action would, in all likelihood, make a difference in the numbers of abortions performed nationally. They would increase; they would go up. Planned Parenthood is much more in the business of preventing pregnancies than it is in the business of aborting them. It is also the only source for women’s health care for many poor women all across the country. It is, in short, an organization that does a great deal of good.
Second, if we take human life seriously, if we’re pro-life (and, remember, ‘pro-life’ is one word I use to describe myself, another being ‘pro-choice’), then let’s genuinely support human life. Let’s end the death penalty for capital crimes. Let’s all commit ourselves to opposing war. Let’s pass a national maternity and paternity leave bill. Let’s find ways to fund child care for working women. And let’s do whatever we can to lower the costs associated with adoption, including adoption by same-sex couples.
Third, let’s support the goal of universal, national, comprehensive (age-appropriate), medically accurate sex education in all American public schools. And let’s admit that, however well-intentioned it may have initially been, that abstinence-only education is a policy failure. That should be easy to do; after all, the states that support abstinence-only programs have higher teen pregnancy rates than states that offer comprehensive education. It just strikes me as morally wrong to ask teachers not to teach any academic subject completely and accurately.
This is an astonishingly divisive and emotionally turbulent issue. And, of course, for some people, it’s an issue where no compromise is possible. But I don’t believe that’s true for most of us. Let’s see if we can find some reasonable middle ground. Start by continuing funding for Planned Parenthood.