Planned Parenthood and the Progressive Conscience

What the undercover Planned Parenthood videos are really doing to the nation's awareness of abortion.

It’s been a big month for abortion, America’s favorite social issue to ignore. The series of four videos from the Center for Medical Progress targeting Planned Parenthood officials purports to show the organization illegally profiting from the sale of fetal organs to bio-research companies. The assault has been merciless and one can’t help but admire the tactical blitz that has forced a taboo issue into the mouths of the mainstream media, and even occasioned an inchoate denunciation from a certain presidential candidate who, just months prior, suggested that deeply held religious beliefs “have to be changed” in order to make way for reproductive health care of the sort Planned Parenthood provides. The CMP claims to have discovered illegal action on the part of Planned Parenthood directors, as profiting from the sale of human fetal tissue is illegal. But for my money, the charges are a blinder, simply a wedge used to drive in the real issue wherein the videos’ true power lies.

The only story I’ve seen really deal with the full implications of these videos from the Pro-Choice side was a piece from Jesse Singal, an author confessing to being “squicked out” by the first video in which PP official Deborah Nucatola casually eats salad while discussing “crushing” fetal parts. The piece then wends into one of those NPR-esque pieces on the vagaries of human consciousness. These little human interest informational pieces–reminding everybody that research shows how gut emotional responses tend to direct policy positions more than reason and that things like “confirmation bias” exist–somehow tend to hit front pages just when successful challenges to an entrenched social position gain some ground. This one is an interview with some Canadian psychology professor on the nature of disgust, perhaps to help explain what it means to be “squicked out” by someone talking about something that one believes in and supports. Getting past the initial shock that someone is being paid to research disgust, Professor Pizarro actually rather hits the nail on the head to my mind, (though probably wishing he hadn’t.)

Another problem with Nucatola’s demeanor, Pizarro said, is that there’s also a great deal of research showing that humans will cut other humans slack when it comes to morally charged decisions — but only if they show outward signs of careful deliberation, painful emotions, or both. Nucatola does not exhibit any such signs of moral compunction. There are good reasons for that, of course — for one thing, she’s talking about a legal procedure that she believes to be morally sound; for another, medical professionals talk about icky-sounding issues with one another all the time, often in ways that people from outside the medical field would find disgusting (“My initial thought as I read the commentary was, Have you ever talked to an MD about this stuff?” said Pizarro). These important nuances are lost, though, in the video’s disgust-fueled spectacle.

Pizarro and Singal’s point is unremarkable: people don’t know much about medical procedures so, in context, the conversation is not so bad. Just a chat between professionals when the tone would’ve been quite different had Nucatola been talking to a civilian. This argument, self-evidently correct though it may be, strains a little to convince three videos later when doctors are chuckling casually while picking legs and eyeballs apart, not to mention the now famous exclamation “it’s another boy!” from the fourth (and hopefully final) video. But it doesn’t really matter, because the context is everything in these videos.

Full-disclosure: I couldn’t bring myself to watch that last one, but after watching the dissection part of the third piece, my first thought was: why hasn’t there been a Bill Nye special about an abortion? Or maybe a Dr. Oz sequence on Oprah? “Sally has gotten herself into a sticky situation. Let’s just pop down here to see what Dr. Raymond can do about it!” Why has the procedure, the industry, and all its interesting factual tidbits not been collected in a DK Multimedia book of cross-sections? Why hasn’t abortion been successfully demystified by a media that is all about demystifying the body and what we can do with it? I’d hazard to say that this is the first time people have ever seen or heard of what goes on in those clinics. So why not? Why not, as a matter of curiosity, publicize how it all works?

It’s because it just feels wrong to treat it all as normal. Pizarro is right, it’s the casualness of the actors in the videos that stokes Pro-Life fury and Pro-Choice “squickiness.” As it turns out, it’s not so hard to convince someone, at least on a visceral level, that there is something deeply wrong with it all; if we are so blind that we cannot see the act itself as abhorrent, then at least the way the act is carried out seems to be. The bright fluorescence and throwaway laughter only serves to highlight those tiny, dismembered limbs. It’s hard to hear past the forced geniality and light commentary the practitioners seem eager to toss around. Its familiarity stings us, because it reminds us of ourselves. These are just nice people who clearly don’t think they’re up to anything sinister, and even the progressive conscience is unnerved by the contrast.

This is what “squickiness” really means: the feeling that carrying out an abortion casually is somehow disrespectful, in bad taste, or maybe even… wrong. One begins to turn on the practitioners in the video, faces clear and unpixelated, perfect scapegoats for “bad medical ethics” or at least having no proper bedside manner. But what is precisely wrong with them? They are of sound minds, being social with one another as they perform a perfectly legal procedure. What’s the matter?

I won’t conceal my prejudices. I admit to being rather an abolitionist when it comes to this matter, growing up as I did. My parents marched in the Walk for Life when I was still in the womb and ever since we’ve counted ourselves proud evangelicals against abortion. I’m aware that there are quite a bit of legal questions to be sussed out if Roe v. Wade is ever to be overturned. Local and Federal lawmakers will have their hands full of problems. But they will be the right sort of problems after the Federal right to abortion is returned to its rightful place where the people’s conscience may once again assail it in the legislature.

The lab scene in the third video (and, I presume also in the fourth) could have been ripped straight from the pages of The Thanatos Syndrome, one of Walker Percy’s lesser novels. At the end, a priest inveighs against the “niceness” of his generation in the words of Flannery O’Connor.

“Tenderness leads to the gas chambers!”

Percy wrote seriously, before likening one’s political enemies to Nazis was so easy and widespread, and that is not my intention here. Rather, I wish to suggest that these videos show how “the banality of evil” in Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase, is not neatly confined to that singularly dreadful case of The Final Solution. Indeed, it may be a universal human temptation, in every age and among every people, to think of certain atrocities as “solutions.” These solutions are, invariably, after good ends: whether public safety, national solidarity, an end to defective births, or securing the autonomy of women. It has occurred in so many ages, under so many banners of niceness, hidden beneath so much casualness, and nevertheless stoppering the creation of inconvenient life: Puerto Ricans, nonwhite Swedes and Finns, and the countless unborn. For all the death somehow, the casualness of it all stings the worst. It betrays that abortions are not isolated measures pursued only in grave or in extreme cases. To those who perform them, they are routine enough to have accumulated their own shop talk and industrial jargon (whether it is a profitable industry or not a profitable one, it matters little.)

Certainly anyone whose work is so close to death, from soldiers to morgue workers develop some protective layers of coarse language. So why so serious in this case? Whence the “squickiness?” Should we not be celebrating a female liberated from the bondage of premature motherhood? But still one feels, even if deep inside, that the dismembered limbs of an unborn baby ought to occasion some pause to consider the tragedy in the tray, even in some enforced ritualistic way to afford some space for consternation. Whether immediately felt or not, we know it ought to be felt, and so we find it prudent to leave some moment of silence so that the conscience may, later on, return to the deed and fill it with a just remorse. The infinite potential of a human mind spattered callously over a petri dish ought to represent more than “fetal tissue” and a coverage of costs. The nonchalance in the lab is a shadow of what our country could become, and in some quarters has already become: a society that buries a routine of death beneath layers of good taste.

This is, incidentally, the very same complaint as those presently demonstrating against police violence. There are so many more murders than those committed by officers true enough, but the protestors rightly see that when unjust death is expected, when it becomes standard operating procedure, and goes unmourned or even tacitly blessed by law, then it is an evil uniquely poised to infect our souls. Death itself may be abhorred, mourned, lamented as a necessary evil, a mercy killing. But to face the culture of death is to ponder the unthinkable: an easy comfort with the systematic extinguishing of human life. A snicker at an execution. A quip in a gas chamber.

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