What if, instead of accusing Planned Parenthood of illegally selling baby parts, the Center for Medical Progress had just admitted up front that what was going on was legal?
What if they had released the videos, in which a medical director for Planned Parenthood calmly explains how an abortion can be carried out to increase the likelihood of recovering the intact skull of the fetus the procedure kills, in order to recover its valuable brain tissue—and then asked us: “Right now, this is legal. Why?”
What if, instead of carefully editing out the parts where that doctor explains that Planned Parenthood can only accept payment to cover costs, and not to profit, they had left them in, and then asked if that careful adherence to legal technicalities makes any moral difference?
What if, instead of shouting #DefundPP, only to be met with #StandWithPP, we had instead been able to ask, on behalf of the unborn: “You want my brain, but why not me?”
While it has achieved new heights of political drama, the attack on Planned Parenthood mounted with these videos as the main weapon has been a tactical and strategic failure for the pro-life movement. The most recent ironic reversal, when a Texas grand jury, convened to consider whether Planned Parenthood broke the law, instead indicted the people who made the videos, provides an almost too-perfect coda to the whole mess.
As I said on the day after the first video was released, after watching the full footage, the way C.M.P. edited the videos to focus on illegal sales while obscuring Planned Parenthood’s efforts to stay within legal boundaries simply reinforced, for many people, the standard pro-choice narrative about pro-life activists as unscrupulous and dishonest extremists willing to do anything to interfere with abortion.
And now, with those very visible pro-life activists indicted for the false identification they used to get into Planned Parenthood clinics and National Abortion Federation conferences, that narrative is neatly completed.
Of course, the neatness of that story is unfair in many ways, not least in that the vindication defenders of Planned Parenthood feel should be exposed to some critical analysis. If an activist had used deception to gain access to document something that we all agreed was wrong, say for example abuse of the elderly in a nursing home or extreme cruelty to animals, would we want them prosecuted for that offense?
What if instead of focusing on how unfair it is that Planned Parenthood should emerge vindicated from the revelation that they’ve worked to maximize the collection of fetal tissue from abortions, we instead asked how we go forward from here?
I understand and share the frustration that nothing can be done to hold Planned Parenthood to account. I am still saddened and disgusted that an organization which reported 323,999 abortions and only 2,024 adoption referrals in 2014-2015 can continue to cite the meaningless statistic that abortion accounts for only three percent of the services it delivers, while probably close to one-third of its clinic revenue is derived from abortions. I remain unconvinced that government funding for other services but not abortion is a meaningful restriction, since money is fungible and the organization has made it clear that they give first priority to access to abortion.
I wish there was something we could do about it. But on the evidence of the last six months, there doesn’t seem to be a realistic path towards defunding Planned Parenthood at the federal level.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should do nothing. But we should do something with a better chance of changing hearts and minds and improving the national dialogue on abortion than accusing Planned Parenthood of crimes that hinge on the technical definition of "sales" and trying to drum up enough outrage to put them on the defensive.
We don’t need more outrage over abortion; we need more sadness. We don’t need anger at Planned Parenthood for breaking the law; we need weeping because what they’re doing is legal in the first place. We don’t need people shouting about baby parts; we need people asking why women are being “comforted” with the possibility that tissue from their unborn children can be used in medical research instead of being supported with the resources and policies necessary for them to feel secure in welcoming those children into the world.
We need to be asking how we can value a fetal brain more than an unborn child, and why we’re encouraging women who feel that abortion is their best or only option to do the same.
At a Mass before this year’s March for Life, just days before the Texas indictments were handed down, Paddy Gilger, S.J., preaching to students from Jesuit schools, reminded them that “No one ever changes from being yelled at. They change from being loved.”
When people we love are holding fast to great evil, we have several tasks. If we can prevent them from carrying the evil out, then we should; but whether we can or not, we don’t stop there. We have to do what we can to avoid any cooperation in or support of the wrong, but we don’t stop there either. We want their hearts to be converted; we want to help them repent of evil and choose the good.
With its video strategy, C.M.P. prioritized attacking Planned Parenthood ahead of trying to change the hearts and minds of those who support them. We’ve seen the results of that approach.
What if we try something different?