The undercover video of a Planned Parenthood official describing the extraction of body parts, between bites of a salad and sips of wine, is not easy to watch. In some basic sense, the videotaped comments speak for themselves: This is what dehumanization looks and sounds like. Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” and it applies here. Still, the video raises as many questions as it answers for the pro-life movement.
The first issue is whether these undercover videos are ethical. The worry is that people misrepresent themselves, then produce content that the rest of the journalistic community cannot ignore, even though journalists are not ethically permitted to misrepresent themselves in order to get a story. It is akin to a tabloid paying money to a source for a story, something a mainstream newspaper would not do, but the sensation caused by the story in the tabloid becomes so great that the mainstream media must begin to cover the story. It gets an unseemly story in through the backdoor.
On the other hand, there is something a bit bizarre about raising issues of journalistic ethics when the subject is the dismemberment of unborn children and the dehumanization in the Planned Parenthood official’s choice of words and tone of delivery is so palpable. If this woman had been speaking about puppies or kittens the way she spoke about an unborn child, the revulsion would have been universal, no? Yet, this is the great success of the pro-abortion movement: They have supplied us with euphemisms and rationales to avoid looking squarely at what an abortion is. After the Roe v. Wade decision, Daniel Callahan wrote in Commonweal:
I am willing – no, well prepared – to grant her that right [to an abortion] under law. I only ask that the society that grants that right be prepared to look with unblinking eyes at just what it is doing, not deceiving itself for one moment about even one aspect of what a granting of that right does….[I predict] in the best 1984 tradition, a reconstruction of history. This is done by creating a highly charged mythology of male repression, or religious persecution, or puritanical fanaticism….and, not incidentally, values are reconstructed by making the value of a potential human being dependent upon being wanted by its mother.
This is what has happened. Any ethical qualms about the dishonest way this video was made must be balanced by ethical qualms, and more than qualms, about the dishonest way the gruesomeness of abortion has been obscured or denied. People will watch a gruesome movie because they know it is not real and that they will leave the theater at the movie’s end. In real life, people do not look like to look at gruesome things for a sustained time, still less to draw the obvious moral consequences from their own reactions. And so they look away. This video makes it easy for people to face the reality, and that is a worthwhile thing.
This observation leads to the second consideration: Is this video effective for the Church’s effort to help constitute a culture of life? On the one hand, it is not difficult to believe that there are people, especially young people, who have never thought about the actual violence that takes place in an abortion. A three-minute video like this may help immunize them to the pro-choice propaganda that speaks only about abortion as helping women self-actualize, while ignoring the dehumanization that is coincident with that self-actualization. “Choice” is something Americans like, but the video makes it clear, in ways most political debates and Planned Parenthood ads do not, just what is being chosen. In this regard, the Onion had a brilliant satire on Planned Parenthood which, like all satire, works because it is in part truthful.
On the other hand, videos like this do not help the pro-life movement fix its biggest problem: For all the proper concern we evidence of the unborn child, we have done a much less able job evidencing our concern for the woman facing a crisis pregnancy. The abortion debate is too often cast in ideological terms and partisan narratives. The National Right-to-Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List are adjuncts of the Republican Party. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, in his last three sermons at the pro-life Vigil at the National Shrine has called attention to this need for the pro-life movement to demonstrate its solidarity with women facing crisis pregnancies, but the response to that part of his homily has been tepid.
Democrats for Life has proposed linking support for the 20-week abortion ban, supported by most Republicans, with pro-women legislation such as expanded, paid medical leave and/or more support for affordable day care, supported by most Democrats. This seems to me to be a better strategy for the pro-life movement. It does not get us into distracting debates about journalistic ethics or organ donation. Instead, it helps the pro-life movement demonstrate its solidarity with both mother and child. It also entails a diversionary debate, but one we should welcome: Most Western European countries do not permit elective abortion after twelve or fourteen or sixteen weeks, depending on the country, with limited exceptions such as to save the life of the mother. Do most Americans realize just how out of the norm our abortion laws are? Let’s ask those who oppose banning elective abortions after 20 weeks if they think all the women in Europe are oppressed.
Unfortunately, instead of this useful and productive effort, the video will occasion some congressional hearings, the issue will immediately become partisan, both Planned Parenthood and Susan B. Anthony will turn the debate into a fundraising mechanism. The strange symbiotic relationship between organized pro-choice and pro-life organizations will continue.
Let me close with a final observation. Yesterday, I wrote about my problems with the Becket Fund’s approach to fighting the HHS contraception mandate, namely, that instead of focusing on the integrity of our Catholic institutions, they focus on the conscience rights of those who run those institutions. Similarly, as the Church and her hospitals will continue to face demands that we perform abortions, or as legislatures contemplate laws that require abortion coverage in insurance plans, our opposition to those laws should not be focused on the depth of our conscientious convictions. Our opposition should be focused on the violence of the act. No one should be forced to participate in the grisly things described by the Planned Parenthood official between bites of her salad. But, let us not only be forceful in defending our unwillingness to participate in such acts, let us be smart about how we discuss it. Instead of saying, “Our Catholic hospitals refuse to perform an abortion,” is it not better to say, “At a Catholic hospital, we always take care of both patients.” Tone matters, as even Cecile Richards was forced to admit. At the end of the day, however, tone is not the problem for Planned Parenthood. The problem is that they do not take care of both patients, they deny there is a second patient, and then steel themselves from the ugliness of what they are doing by adopting precisely the kind of dehumanizing attitude we all saw on the video. I will not applaud undercover journalism. But, compared to what is done every day in the abortion clinics of this country, I am not going to lose sleep about undercover journalism either. And, before going to sleep, I will pray that the pro-life movement will find more persuasive and convincing approaches so that we can continue to build up a culture of life and continue to dismantle the culture of death.