Two Stories That Are Shaping the Abortion Debate

An activist group is trying to discredit Planned Parenthood with covertly recorded videos even as contraception advocates are touting a method that sharply reduces unwanted pregnancies.

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

Abortion is back at the fore of U.S. politics due to an activist group’s attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood, one of the most polarizing organizations in the country. Supporters laud its substantial efforts to provide healthcare for women and children. For critics, nothing that the organization does excuses its role in performing millions of abortions––a procedure that they regard as literal murder––and its monstrous character is only confirmed, in their view, by covertly recorded video footage of staffers cavalierly discussing what to do with fetal body parts.

If nothing else, that recently released footage has galvanized Americans who oppose abortion, media outlets that share their views, and politicians who seek their votes. “Defunding Planned Parenthood is now a centerpiece of the Republican agenda going into the summer congressional recess,” The Washington Post reports, “and some hard-liners have said they are willing to force a government shutdown in October if federal support to the group is not curtailed.”

Like many in the mainstream media, the newspaper focused on whether Planned Parenthood broke the law. “Anti-abortion activists have suggested that the videos constitute evidence that Planned Parenthood has violated the federal ban on selling fetal tissue for profit, as well as other federal abortion restrictions,” it notes. “While Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards has apologized for the tone of remarks heard in one video, the organization has strongly denied any wrongdoing.”

For many, there’s also a hope that these videos will change public opinion.

Abortion opponents see one of the same qualities that they seized on in the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion provider who, in the words of a grand jury, “illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy, and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors." In that controversy, abortion-rights supporters correctly noted that Dr. Gosnell’s clinic was atypical; that he was accused of perpetrating murders, not legal abortions; and that if abortion were illegal, there might be more clinics like his, not fewer. But the case exposed the public to descriptions of “fetal demise”—more graphic than any that are typically encountered. And some observers noticed that late-term abortions performed legally at the clinic seemed no less brutal than illegal infanticides, even if tiny arms and legs were dismembered and spinal chords severed inside the womb or birth canal rather than outside it.

“I think we’ve forgotten what abortion really is,” activist Lila Rose told Bill O’Reilly at the time. Abortion opponents who believe it to be murder hoped that the case would jolt some of their fellow Americans toward the same conclusion–– and they see similar potential in the Planned Parenthood videos, even granting the significant differences between the two controversies. So long as the organization’s supporters and opponents are arguing over whether it behaved legally or illegally when providing the livers of aborted fetuses to medical researchers, some number of persuadable people who haven’t thought deeply about the subject will realize that doctors are sometimes killing something with a liver, and perhaps start to think of the unborn as possessing livers rather than just clumps of cells.

If that triggers a visceral reaction against abortion, Ross Douthat argues, it would be justified. “Real knowledge isn’t purely theoretical; it’s the fruit of experience, recognition, imagination, life itself,” he writes. “And the problem these videos create for Planned Parenthood isn’t just a generalized queasiness at surgery and blood. It’s a very specific disgust, informed by reason and experience—the reasoning that notes that it’s precisely a fetus’s humanity that makes its organs valuable, and the experience of recognizing one’s own children, on the ultrasound monitor and after, as something more than just ‘products of conception’ or tissue for the knife.”

For their part, abortion-rights activists also draw on visceral reactions in forming and arguing for their moral judgments. In their view, prohibiting abortion would be gruesome: a guarantor of horrific outcomes for women that would play out in millions of horrific scenes. They urge the public to think of the coat-hanger; the filthy underground clinics where desperate teenage girls will be abused; the 15-year-old rape victim whose skin will crawl at the physical sensation of her rapist’s baby growing inside her; the mother of three who dies painfully in pregnancy because she could not persuade anyone to terminate the pregnancy that threatened her health.

So many Americans have conflicted opinions about abortion policy, or do their utmost to look away from the abortion debate entirely, precisely because when they listen to an abortion opponent describing the consequences of its ongoing legality and then an abortion rights proponent describing the consequences of making it illegal, they desperately desire to avoid being complicit in either of those terrible realities. Told that legal abortion is unspeakably brutal to unborn humans and that lack of access to legal abortion is unspeakably brutal to women, they feel both are correct. Thus the appeal of Bill Clinton’s famous attempt to triangulate on the issue: The notion that the best way forward is to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.”

That approach squares with the moral intuitions of many Americans, even as others in the conflicted middle of the issue would prefer a formulation that distinguishes between abortions carried out at 8 weeks and those carried out at 8 months. For them, “safe, legal, and rare” sounds like a good compromise when they imagine a “clump of cells” being aborted very early in a pregnancy and much less desirable––even intolerable––when they imagine a baby that would be perfectly viable outside the womb being dismembered at 33 weeks inside the birth canal.

For either sort in the conflicted middle, this summer has brought some happy news. “Over the past six years, Colorado has conducted one of the largest experiments with long-acting birth control,” the New York Times reported. “If teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years, state officials asked, would those women choose them? They did in a big way, and the results were startling. The birthrate among teenagers across the state plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rate of abortions fell by 42 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.”

The program saved taxpayers an estimated $80 million in Medicaid costs and will cut costs elsewhere too. But when the private money that paid for the program dried up, some pro-life legislators in the state opposed continuing to fund it using public money. Why would legislators who regard abortion as murder oppose a program that caused a 42 percent reduction in women seeking the procedure? “Most of the time an IUD prevents sperm from meeting an egg, and therefore prevents pregnancy,” NPR explains. “But if the egg and sperm do meet, the IUD keeps that embryo from planting itself in the uterus. In those cases, an IUD would prevent a fertilized egg from developing into a person.” Some regard those rare cases as abortions.

Opponents of state funding for IUDs cite other concerns as well. "We believe that offering contraceptives to teens, especially long-acting reversible contraceptives, while it may prevent pregnancy, does not help them understand the risks that come with sexual activities," Colorado Family Action stated in USA Today. "We should not remove parents from the equation—equipping teens for safe sex without their parent's involvement bypasses this critical parental right and responsibility. Parents need to be the primary educator when it comes to sexual education and the primary decision about healthcare choices for their children. Lastly, Colorado taxpayers should not be paying for the 'Cadillac' of birth control for minor children."

My position on abortion is very much in the conflicted middle. Does human life begin at conception? When a heartbeat can be detected? At some threshold of brain development? At birth? I don’t know for sure. After much reflection, I’ve concluded that I should usually write about other issues where I’ve found more clarity.

But precisely because I’m at least somewhat persuaded by Douthat’s argument that it’s rational to pay some attention to our visceral reactions, because “real knowledge isn’t purely theoretical; it’s the fruit of experience, recognition, imagination, life itself,” I find myself feeling, with more confidence than I typically do on this subject, that it’s a huge mistake to group IUDS in the same moral category as abortions. That reducing clinic abortions by 42 percent is a morally superior outcome even if IUDs used to achieve that stop some fertilized eggs from implanting. It isn’t just that those cases are rare (though I find that relevant) but that––to return to an earlier formulation––an egg just after it is fertilized seems better characterized as “a clump of cells” than “a living thing with a liver.”

There are pro-lifers who feel very deeply that deliberately ending a life at eight minutes is the moral equivalent of doing so at eight months; and while I bear them no ill will and cannot definitely prove that they are wrong, I hope that they fail to prevent the public funding of IUDs in more states. Rigorous studies declare that they are medically safe. If no terrible, non-medical unintended consequences can be anticipated from their wider use––and that ought to be probed as cautiously as has their medical safety––they strike me as the happiest of all advances in the realm of reproduction: a technology that advances women’s autonomy even as it decreases abortions and saves taxpayers money. The retort, “life begins at conception and I cannot be complicit in subsidizing a device that ends such lives” is, I think, coherent. But it is seemingly at odds with the visceral case against Planned Parenthood.

If we should be influenced at all by our reactions to graphic descriptions of late-term abortions or the livers of aborted fetuses, we should also be influenced by the fact of feeling very little on hearing that a newly fertilized egg did not implant. And I suspect that one day in the future, when very effective birth control is in widespread use, we’ll look back with confusion on a time when the greatest opposition to contraception that would nearly halve the number of abortions in the U.S. was opposed by the same coalition that most strongly believes abortion to be murder.