Hillary Clinton was the only person to bring up Planned Parenthood in the first Democratic debate earlier this week; no moderator asked any question about abortion, and none of the other candidates addressed it. She characterized Republicans as rejecting government involvement in guaranteeing paid family leave, but not “mind[ing] having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood.” She was met with thunderous applause.
Earlier, in the second Republican debate, the undercover Planned Parenthood videos produced by the Center for Medical Progress were the prompt for a vigorous challenge from Carly Fiorina, who dared Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone say we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” She was likewise met with thunderous applause.
What this tells us is that these videos, and the ensuing furor over them and the political fight over defunding Planned Parenthood, have largely been used as dog whistles. While audible and even piercingly shrill to those who can hear them, they go unheard and unnoticed by almost everyone else. And for those whose hearing is most acute, at both ends of the political spectrum, these videos have served mainly as a summons for deeper entrenchment in the positions they already held, rather than as an opportunity for dialogue.
For an example of this process in action, we need look no further than the response to Ms. Fiorina’s challenge to Democratic politicians to “watch these tapes.” Critics quickly attacked her description, claiming that no such scene can be found on any of the videos, with some going so far as to describe her “citing [a] nonexistent abortion video,” as if she had entirely imagined the gruesome scene.
The truth is that while there is a brief moment in one of the video matching her description, it is not footage from C.M.P.’s undercover operation, but rather included from another source, and the voice saying the fetus has to be kept alive to harvest its brain is a former fetal tissue procurement technician describing her recollection of a different event, not on screen.
In other words, that situation reproduced the whole debate over the videos in miniature: people who are already pro-choice dismiss them as deceptive and fabricated while people who are already pro-life scramble to explain why in fact they are not, while people who are already on the fence and uncomfortable with abortion wish for the whole mess to go away.
The standard pro-choice dismissal of these videos is now that they were “deceptively edited,” which often seems to be used as synonymous with “entirely fabricated,” and thus able to be dismissed as if they raised no important questions at all. In fact, even the analysis of the videos commissioned by Planned Parenthood found “no evidence that C.M.P. inserted dialogue not spoken by Planned Parenthood staff,” though the short videos were edited “so as to misrepresent statements.” Another analysis of the videos, commissioned by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization devoted to defending religious liberty, and with access to the original media files, concluded that the only edits to the full footage videos released on YouTube “were applied to eliminate non-pertinent footage” such as restroom breaks.
But while nothing was fabricated, the short videos were deceptively edited; while they may accurately represent material facts, they deceive as to motive and intent. They edit away the manifest concern Planned Parenthood representatives have for remaining within the technical legal limits of compensation for costs incurred in processing tissue, and instead suggest that they are motivated to negotiate the highest price possible.
As I said in my post after watching the full footage of the first video, what C.M.P.’s edits obscured, and what Planned Parenthood has further obscured by treating the edits as reason to dismiss the videos entirely is “that virtually no one on either side of the abortion debate has motives as demonic as their opponents would like.” Most pro-lifers are not motivated by an atavistic desire to control women’s bodies, but by the recognition of the common humanity we share with the unborn, the very quality that makes fetal tissue valuable enough to donate and process at all. Defenders of abortion are not motivated by the need for fetal tissue, nor do most find satisfaction in the termination of a pregnancy, but instead are moved by concern for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and self-determination, which they privilege over and above the life of a child before birth.
We should ask then—I should ask, since I’ve written about these videos and helped to direct some attention their way—what they’ve actually accomplished, in terms of helping to protect the unborn or advancing the long-running American argument over abortion.
One victory: Planned Parenthood will no longer accept compensation for processing fetal tissue donations, and only two Planned Parenthood affiliates still participate in fetal tissue sourcing at all. So, inasmuch as, from a pro-life perspective, the use and commodification of the bodies of aborted fetuses as raw materials for research is objectionable in its own right, that is (minimal) moral progress. There is now less apparent benefit to and less opportunity to minimize the costs of the overall tragedy of abortion.
However, Planned Parenthood is still receiving its full allotment of federal funds, and still performing as many abortions as it ever has. In retrospect, their funding was never in serious jeopardy, since enough pro-choice Democrats in the Senate were committed to blocking consideration of any budget which defunded them, and the only counter-move Republicans in the House had available was a game of brinksmanship over shutting down the federal government, which John Boehner resigned his speakership to avoid.
The various investigations of Planned Parenthood, even if they continue not to reveal any illegal activity, will surely damage Planned Parenthood’s standing in public opinion, and may help to raise questions about the degree to which the organization overall is dependent on and committed to the revenues from abortion.
Overall, however, the battle lines over abortion are, if anything, more entrenched. The videos helped produce #DefundPP, but also and inevitably #IStandWithPP. They convinced some pro-lifers that Planned Parenthood, which they already detested, was “selling baby parts.” They convinced many pro-choice advocates, who already distrusted anyone opposed to abortion, that pro-lifers were willing to lie and exaggerate in order to score a victory.
I wish we could have had something different. I wish that we could all have been asked to consider the casual horror of a doctor discussing how to avoid crushing a fetal skull while dismembering the rest of the body; I wish that we could have talked about why the brain in that skull was valuable enough to recover while the unborn child was not valuable enough to protect. I wish that we could have talked about Planned Parenthood’s willingness to comfort a pregnant woman with the idea that her aborted child’s tissues would go to some good use, while we cannot offer her the comfort of guaranteed paid leave after giving birth.
I wish that we could have talked about that, instead of about whether or not compensation was technically a sale or the videos were deceptively edited.
Maybe all that was never possible. Maybe we are so used to dog whistles and ignoring them at this point that only the shout of “selling baby parts” was capable of being heard. But that’s turned out to be another dog whistle, even when blown through a megaphone.
Our disagreements about abortion are not going to go away. The problem is that they’re stuck at shouting at each other while ignoring the real motives and valid concerns expressed by those on the other side. The question we should be trying to answer is not, at this moment, who’s going to win, but rather whether or not we can get to dialogue about our actual disagreements, instead of just reaffirmations of our loyalty to our sides.