Thoughts on the Planned Parenthood Videos

I thought I would simply wait out the whole Planned Parenthood controversy, but it appears that it continues to grow and grow without any obvious endpoint.  So, here are some thoughts.

1.  The Messenger is Not the Message.  There are those who cannot fathom why people are not more upset about the Planned Parenthood videos.  There is a simple and direct answer to their question--there is a significant segment of the population that loathes the pro-life movement and pro-life messengers, and as such simply ignores everything they say.  Many think that insofar as these videos are the product of hardcore wing of the pro-life movement, and they are, then they are to be ignored.

I say that to be descriptive, not prescriptive.  No matter how much you dislike the pro-life movement and its mouthpieces, I think these videos are disturbing and problematic for the pro-choice movement.  In fact, I think it would have been far more effective for the pro-life folks to have simply released the videos in their raw form, as opposed to the somewhat ham-fisted attempts to edit them into hit pieces.  Editing them only gave ammunition to those who would discount the videos because of their source.

No matter how much you dislike the messengers, the videos reflect a callousness about what is, at an absolute minimum, potential human life.  They are ghoulish, especially the recently released videos discussing the various organs being harvested.  The argument that medical people talk this way all the time about things like cadavers is beside the point--regular people, including regular people who vote, do not approach things from that perspective.  These videos reinforce every stereotype that many people have had about folks involved in abortions--that they are casual about what they are doing and that they are inured to the moral dimensions of their actions.  It's a bad look for the pro-choice movement.  And, to the extent people are willing to take on board what the videos show as opposed to who is providing them and attempting to exploit them for their political ends, I predict that they will have an impact on people's views of the abortion question.

That's why I think commentary such as that from Bill Lindsey, who I love, is misplaced.  Yes, the people bringing us these videos are somewhere between unpleasant and awful.  But shooting the messenger will not make the message go away.

2.  The Abortion Issue Is Not About Abortion.  The problem with the "debate," such as it is, about abortion is that it is not really about abortion.  I am 100% convinced that basically everyone on the pro-choice side and a majority of people on the pro-life side are using the abortion issue as a proxy to argue about the role of women and their sexual autonomy.  The pro-choice side sees abortion as the tip of the spear in the fight to roll back all of the gains that women have made in terms of the ability to work, the ability to forge their own lives in an autonomous way, and, yes, the ability to decide with whom and under what circumstances they will have sex.  Framed in this manner, the abortion issue becomes for a certain segment of feminist women an existential fight to the death, a line in the sand on which they cannot afford to give any ground.

And, here's the truth; they are not wrong.  There is a significant and vocal segment of the pro-life movement who do want to roll back the sexual revolution.  They talk about it all the time.  And the vast majority of people in this country, especially women, do not want that to happen.

This is why polling on abortion and voting patterns on abortion are so discordant.  It is true that a significant majority of people would favor greater limitations on the availability of abortion.  But it is also the case that these same people, without necessarily saying it, condition that support on not having to give back their personal and sexual autonomy.  So long as the pro-choice side can portray abortion as being about winding the clock back to the 50s or before, none of that abstract support for abortion restriction is going to translate into concrete policy successes.

For this reason, my ultimate view of Charles Camosy's Beyond the Abortion Wars is that it (1) is a step in the right direction; and (2) doesn't go far enough.  Linking pro-woman policy initiatives to the proposed restrictions on abortion is the right approach because it provides bona fides that the pro-life side is interested in enhancing the position of women, not limiting their autonomy.  It is, in the language of international diplomacy, a confidence building measure.  However, Camosy's proposals do not go far enough because they do not include the real confidence building initiative:

3.  Time to Make a Decision.  If I may be so bold as to give some political advice to pro-life Catholics, I would tell them that they have an opportunity to change the debate on this issue.  Rightly or wrongly, people are now in a position to look at the unpleasant realities of our current abortion regime.  I would recommend you propose three things at once:  (1) call for the the defunding of Planned Parenthood; (2) call for a bill banning all second and third trimester abortions except in rape and life-of-the-mother circumstances; and (3) publicly announce that the new by-pass mechanism the Obama administration has announced for the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act is fine and you are encouraging all parties to drop litigation against the government.

The best argument in defense of Planned Parenthood is that they provide contraceptive and women's health services that people want but can't otherwise afford.  As long as organizations like the Catholic Church oppose  (or seem to oppose), not just contraception but access to contraception, then that argument is going to have purchase with people.  If you remove that perception, then Planned Parenthood actually becomes what its pro-life critics have always claimed it is--a place to get abortions (especially when combined with re-routing funding to Community Health Centers, as the Democrats for Life group endorses).  Removing your opposition to the contraceptive mandate isolates the abortion issue (where your position is popular) from the other culture war-ish positions (where the pro-life side's general approach is unpopular).  The pro-life movement, at least in its Catholic incarnation, no longer has to be weighed down with the heavy yoke of representing the vanguard of "a war on women."

More than anything else, it would be a confidence-building measure for moderates, especially female moderates (including, I might add, moderate women who go to Mass on Sunday).  It is a way of signaling that this is actually about what you believe to be babies and the principle of protecting them, and not about policing the sexual decisions.  If what you really care about is unborn life, this is the best way of proving it to a population that is skeptical of your sincerity, and not without reason.

Does that mean the Catholic Church is, on some level, compromising on the contraception question?  Yes.  But that's why it is time to make a decision--do you want to talk and fight a culture war, one that has not produced much if any results in the last forty years?  Do you want to use abortion as a club to beat up and discredit your political and religious opponents (as, for example, Michael Sean Winters does here)?  Or do you want to get something done?  No one is going to make you say that you think contraception is a good thing.  But if you are willing to recognize the principle that people have the legal entitlement to use it, and that you won't stand in their way of exercising that entitlement, then they will be more willing to work with you on abortion.  Rather than being the pro-life extremists tarring the entire movement with their brush (which has been the way it has been for 30 years), you can isolate the pro-choice extremists, who don't actually represent the position of the majority of women, even the majority of self-described feminist women.

Right now, all of the yelling about how you always knew Planned Parenthood is evil plays right into the hands of the people that want to continue this divide and portray the pro-life movement as inexorably opposed to women's empowerment.  Don't play that game.  Isolate the worst parts of the abortion issue and focus exclusively on that.

Otherwise, this is going to be yet another round on the unproductive treadmill that is the abortion wars.


No matter how much you dislike the pro-life movement and its mouthpieces, I think these videos are disturbing and problematic for the pro-choice movement.

Assuming we're talking about the same videos, I guess I just don't understand why this is. Planned Parenthood has to dispose of fetal tissue in some way, the tissue is only donated for research if the mother agrees, and the charges reflect only the cost of the process. I think people aren't more upset about the videos because there's simply no there there. The idea that the casual tone of the discussion is going to horrify people seems like kind of a non-starter. Medical professionals talk casually about all sorts of stuff that makes people squeamish. Either you think abortion is wrong, in which case you a fortiori think this is immoral and awful, or you think abortion is okay and are glad leftover fetal tissue is being donated to science. I just don't see how this moves anyone from one camp to the other.

dianedp said…
If I were to need of an abortion I would donate anything I could to help advance lifesaving techniques for children and adults.

Just as I have signed on to be an organ donor when I die.

I will have my first grandchild in January. I would never insist my daughter have this baby if her life were in danger or if the fetus was seriously impaired. Or if she had been raped and became pregnant. I have know several women who have had abortions due to severe fetal anomilies that were not compatible with life.3 of them had given birth to babies that died horrible deaths.

Michael Boyle said…
It seems to me that one of the key rhetorical moves made by the pro-choice movement is to say "this is not a person, this is a clump of cells." On an emotional level, I think that is a powerful position--we don't care particularly about cheek scrapings, so there is no reason to give personhood to a clump of cells. And, when we are talking about very early on (i.e. first trimester), the "clump of cells" argument really does reflect reality.

The moment you start talking about organs, I think that rhetoric breaks down. If we are talking about something with a heart, liver, etc., then it starts to look far less like a clump of cells and far more like a person. I suspect that many folks, as a result of these videos, will find it harder to hold onto the "it's just a clump of cells" position, and so be more open to protecting later stage pregnancies.

Perhaps you are right, and perhaps nothing will come of these videos. Maybe I am just projecting my own squeamishness as a result of the videos. I just have my doubts that people's positions on abortion are driven my logic and rational argument--I think it is more of a visceral thing.

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