Planned Parenthood: The Videos & the Vote

The reaction to the undercover videos of physicians at Planned Parenthood discussing the dismemberment of unborn children with a view toward being able to harvest their organs shows the potential to reframe this nation’s debate about abortion.  But, last night’s vote in the Senate to defund Planned Parenthood shows how the political reaction betrays a flawed strategy that risks missing the opportunity to reframe that debate.

In this morning’s Chicago Tribune, Archbishop Blase Cupich writes:

the outrage expressed by many at the physicians' callous and flippant attitude toward trafficking in human body parts is evidence that American hearts have not been irreparably hardened by the steady devaluing of human dignity in our society. This awakening of our conscience gives hope that deep within the hearts and souls of Americans there still resides the truth that an unborn child manifestly is a human being, entitled to rights and respect.

An awakened conscience is a formidable thing. Think of John Newton, converting from the slave trade to authoring the de facto national hymn “Amazing Grace.” The videos accomplished this awakening and, just so, are to be welcomed.

The problem for the pro-life movement is that abortion is first a moral and a cultural issue, and consequently and derivatively a political issue. The effort to turn the outrage at the videos into a quick political win is misguided. Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see Planned Parenthood shuttered and I would have voted accordingly if I could. But, changing the culture doesn’t happen overnight. Putting Planned Parenthood in the dock on account of these videos by going after their funding short circuits the outrage, it does not help it to sink in. Success will only attend the pro-life cause when the nation realizes that it is the ingrained libertarianism of the left that justifies a pro-abortion legal structure and that the antidote to all libertarianism, left and right, is an ethic of solidarity.

There are many, many reasons to think Planned Parenthood should not be receiving tax dollars – or be in business at all. As Kristen Day of Democrats for Life pointed out in a press release, there are 9,000 community health centers and only 700 Planned Parenthood centers, and Day urged Congress to re-direct the money from defunding Planned Parenthood to those community health centers. As a matter of policy, this makes sense. And, it is more than a little ironic to see Democrats, who when discussing the issue of climate change insist that the facts should matter, not the ideology, portraying the effort to defund Planned Parenthood as an attack on women when many other organizations do a lot more for women’s health than does Planned Parenthood. But, why make enemies of the women who do go to Planned Parenthood for services other than abortion?

Republicans in Congress may or may not be sincere about their commitment to the pro-life cause. I have my doubts because they seem to care little about the lives of immigrants killed crossing the desert, or the lives of Iraqi civilians killed during the war, or the lives that would be sacrificed if the Affordable Care Act was repealed. But, Republicans most definitely care about their partisan advantage. Some in the “crazy caucus” have been looking for an issue to attach to the debt ceiling vote in September, and now they have found it. They want to make the government default on its obligations and put the blame on President Obama. What does that have to do with pursuing the common good? Pro-life leaders must find ways to guarantee that with each and every step, in each and every statement, and animating each and every strategy, that their pro-life advocacy does not descend into partisan posturing, or the moral clarity of our message will get muddied and lost.

These pro-life leaders should start by re-evaluating their relationship with both parties. There is no credible long-term strategy to convince the country that abortion is wrong that will not require at least a strong pro-life wing of the Democratic Party. Yes, the Democrats are a mess on this issue. Emily’s List brings big money to the fight. Planned Parenthood has built strategic political alliances with politicians and other progressive groups. But, the National-Right-to-Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List act as if they are mere adjuncts of the Republican National Committee. In Indiana, the state’s right-to-life committee declined to support pro-life Democrats. The Susan B. Anthony List targeted pro-life Democrats who supported the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and they were effective. But, what did that do to advance the pro-life cause? Last night, only two Democrats voted against Planned Parenthood.

The vote to defund Planned Parenthood was immediately cast as the latest iteration of the so-called “war on women.” Here the bishops have a special obligation to get involved. One of the hallmarks of Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s tenure as chair of the committee on pro-life activities has been his repeatedly voiced concern for women facing crisis pregnancies. His statement on the videos made that point again. The entire pro-life movement must demonstrate again and again that it is not anti-women. This task is made harder when bishops publicly dress down a pro-choice politician as a bad Catholic or seek to deny her communion.

The way to upset the pro-choice narrative that any attempt to restrict abortion is a war on women is to point out, as Archbishop Cupich did this morning, that both ideological extremes have a blind spot. Democrats care for the undocumented but not the unborn. Republicans care for the unborn but not the undocumented. An awakened conscience must be broad and consistent, not narrow and arbitrary. He writes:

This newest evidence about the disregard for the value of human life also offers the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life. While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.

It has been more than thirty years since +Cupich’s predecessor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called for a consistent ethic of life. Many U.S. bishops opposed that approach. But, what has the laser-like focus on abortion to the exclusion of all other issues, achieved? It has not really shifted the political landscape. It has most certainly distorted the Church’s self-understanding and the face it presents to the culture. +Bernardin was right then, and +Cupich is right now: Only if the Church calls both parties to ask themselves why they are so selective in their compassion will the inconsistency at the heart of both the left and right be exposed and, hopefully, call people to reflect, and reflect deeply, about their sense of human dignity and the claims that dignity should make on our shared political life. Only when we see the inconsistency of being pro-life on abortion but opposed to efforts to protect the environment, or being a staunch defender of immigrants, but not their unborn children, only then will we achieve the kind of inclusive political culture Pope Francis is calling us to embrace.

Congress will hold hearings on the Planned Parenthood videos later this year. I hope they do not focus solely on whether or not the dollar amounts being discussed by the physicians violated the law that prohibits the sale of fetal body parts. I hope, instead, the focus will be on the moral status of the unborn child. After all, if the unborn child is all just tissue, why should be get queasy? We get queasy because we know it is a baby.

No matter how successful we are in highlighting the humanity if the unborn child, the pro-life movement must find ways to demonstrate that it is not anti-women, that those women who procure abortions are not “evil women” but desperate women, who find themselves in a difficult circumstance that can, and should, be ameliorated by means of solidarity, not by violence against the child. A poor woman who is now able to get medical care through the Affordable Care Act is far less likely to decide to have an abortion for financial reasons than she would have been if she lacked that new access to health care.

The road to full equality for the unborn children of the world will be a long road. No single video, no single legislative amendment, no single political campaign, will change the cultural landscape that needs to be changed if we are to win this fight for human dignity. Avoiding the consistent ethic of life has not moved the ball one iota. It is time to embrace the consistent ethic of life, make every politician – and most voters – squirm, and hope that in their squirming they begin to think differently about what we all owe to each other.



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