Planned Parenthood Videos Urge Us To Reframe Abortion Debates

Current Events

The release of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood and other companies involved in the procurement of fetal tissue has powerfully reignited the public debate surrounding the place of Planned Parenthood within American public life and has placed the controversial organization under renewed scrutiny.

The heat of the debate has unquestionably risen, yet perhaps a more interesting question to ask is whether the release of these videos has occasioned any alteration in the debate’s shape and substance. Although a few pro-choice observers have declared that their stance on abortion has been shaken by the videos, to date the effect of the videos has principally been that of hardening the convictions of persons already opposed.

The limited and hostile media airing the videos have generally received in contexts with predominantly pro-choice leaning audiences has possibly curtailed the wider traction in the public consciousness their creators might have hoped for them.

If the producers of these videos believe them to be a smoking gun, demonstrating that Planned Parenthood has illegally been selling fetal organs for profit, in my estimation most of the videos themselves—while raising troubling questions—have fallen short of substantiating this strong claim.

The fifth video—the most recent at the time of writing—has particularly disturbing claims from Melissa Farrell, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s Director of Research. To me, these are perhaps the closest the videos have come to firm evidence of illegality and/or attempts to circumvent the law. For instance, ‘Yeah, and so if we alter our process … and we are able to obtain intact fetal cadavers, then we can make it part of the budget, that any dissections are this, and splitting the specimens into different shipments is this. I mean that’s—it’s all just a matter of line items.’

I suspect, however, that the greater significance of the Planned Parenthood videos for the public debate lies elsewhere. Although arguments for abortion typically focus narrowly upon the principle of women’s right to choose in matters concerning their own bodies, these videos afford us a wider angle upon the actual practice of abortion in the US, bringing several unpalatable features and unsettling inconsistencies into the frame.

For instance, abortion, which may seem conscionable when we mentally picture ‘clumps of cells’, may be considerably less so when much more developed fetuses—potential sources of intact human organs—are also in view. Indeed, the very value for research of the fetal organs in question arises from the fact that the fetus is, in some sense, one of us.

The videos expose the motives of abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood to more searching interrogation. While Planned Parenthood may be for many the disinterested guardian and symbol of the exalted principle of women’s right to choose, the videos and the public discourse arising from them presents it in a less flattering light, bringing the organization’s own business, institutional, and political interests to public light.

That these interests align or are congruent with the best interests of women is, in many instances, not immediately apparent.

Debates such as the one surrounding abortion—debates that center upon deeply vexed questions of fundamental values—can easily cause us to stumble through a failure to distinguish the good and the right. Oliver O’Donovan writes in  Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology:

The goodness of good things constitutes a reason why certain acts at certain times are right; the badness of bad things constitutes a reason why certain acts at certain times are wrong. But there is a journey of thought needed to focus the wide-spreading “is” of value upon the narrow “ought” of an obligation to perform a given deed at a given time. (29).

Theoretical reason concerning the good can often advance with a determined sureness of deductive steps that is denied to practical reason in its inductive peregrinations between the world of action and the world of realities, as it reflects and deliberates concerning the right.

When the question of the right is mistakenly presumed already to have been settled within our determination of the good, we are at risk of leaving questions of practical reason unattended.  For instance, an argument in favour of the death penalty is not in itself a sufficient argument in favour of America’s current practices of the death penalty.  We are at risk of neglecting the ‘journey of thought’ of which O’Donovan speaks and presuming that policies and practices are the natural and necessary emanations of our values.

This neglect of the task of practical reason can have curious effects. I suspect that one of these is the inappropriate imputation of a necessity to prevailing party alignments on issues such as abortion, when such alignments often arose, not as a necessary and inexorable outworking of core values, but as a fortuitous crystallization from the messy vicissitudes of historical contingencies.

While close study of history can disabuse us of such a notion, its stubborn purchase on the public mind discourages the sort of rigorous cross-examination and re-evaluation of the relation between our abstract values and our concrete policies on matters such as abortion that we need. My girlfriend—whose perceptive insight has been formative of my own thinking on this matter—is doing her doctoral research (in history) on developing evangelical responses to abortion in the 1970s and 1980s, which are powerfully illustrative of this fact.

The neglect of practical reason can also lead us to misattribute the source of all of our differences to irreconcilable opposition at the level of fundamental values—pro-life versus pro-choice—causing us to despair of discourse and encouraging a ‘culture war’ posture.

Yet, as Charles Camosy has argued in his recent book, Beyond the Abortion Wars, the American public belies the widespread perception of the abortion debate as hopelessly polarized.  Most people on both sides actually support both restrictions upon abortion and access to it in key cases. Were we to reframe the discussion, given due scope to questions of practical reason, the supposed breach within American society on the issue of abortion might begin to seem much less threatening.

Perhaps the best thing that could arise out of these videos—especially as an alternative to the increasingly hollow rallying calls to pro-choice values as a sufficient answer to the serious and specific charges made against Planned Parenthood—is a renewed attention on all sides to the role that practical reason must play in the abortion question.

The tension that a number of pro-choice advocates may feel between the actual concrete practices of Planned Parenthood and their values may represent a salutary conceptual prying apart of values and political obligations they may have unthinkingly conflated.

Even without rejecting their core values, these videos may encourage some pro-choice advocates critically to re-evaluate the ‘journey of thought’—if indeed it was a journey of thought, rather than a thoughtless leap—that led them to regard organizations such as Planned Parenthood as the public symbols and practical expressions of their pro-choice values. Indeed, as abortion more typically arises from the constraints upon women’s choices, perhaps it is time to find a better flagship for pro-choice values, perhaps something like a robust maternity leave policy.

There is no reason why such critical scrutiny of Planned Parenthood need not proceed from a deeper commitment to pro-choice values, rather than a rejection or qualification of them.

I hold out a similar hope for those on the pro-life side of the issue, for whom pro-life values are often exhausted in the opposition to abortion. Greater attention and dedication to the ‘journey of thought’ that practical reason requires of us would, I believe, expose the greater onus that pro-life values place upon all of us.

Such an onus includes the duty of forging communities, practices, and policies that recognize or extend due dignity, honour, self-ownership, support, social presence, and affordable and accessible healthcare to women, that protect the young from lack, and that affirm the humanity of the weak and disabled. If all sides of the abortion debate committed themselves to practical reason and to a more thoughtful and extensive application of their values to the realm of practice I believe that, despite enduring differences, a surprising degree of rapprochement might be rendered possible.

Alastair Roberts is a well-known theological blogger currently residing in the north of England.  His current blog is entitled Alastair’s Adversaria.

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