baby hand in parent hand

By now, almost everyone who isn’t a Democratic United States Senator has seen at least one of the five macabre videotapes released by the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life investigative group. The videos are ubiquitous in social media, so I won’t provide links to them here.

In a recent post, AJC columnist Jay Bookman has provided a nice example of the arguments offered by those who continue to defend Planned Parenthood in the face of these—to say the least—embarrassing revelations. Here are his five points, together with my responses.

1. Nothing in the tapes provides evidence of illegal, let alone criminal, behavior. Planned Parenthood is allowed by law to recover its costs in collecting, preserving and transporting that tissue, and there is no evidence it violated that law. Tellingly, and despite the melodramatic complaints of conservatives, the videos have so far resulted in no criminal investigation or prosecution by state or federal authorities. Yelling and the beating of chests doesn’t alter that basic fact. Fabricated outrage doesn’t change that. Simply put, in legal terms there is no “there” there.

Not so fast, Mr. Bookman. The Planned Parenthood representatives are indeed cagey and circumspect and there is, to be sure, no straightforward smoking gun, but like all bureaucrats, they seem to know that there are expenses and then there are expenses. It may take a lot of trouble to untangle what’s a genuine “cost” and what amounts to a profit over and above costs. That the Department of Justice or a federal prosecutor hasn’t yet commenced an investigation doesn’t mean that the DOJ or a D.A. won’t, though given the track record of this Administration with respect to abortion, I’m not holding my breath. A real federal investigation may have to await a new Administration, or a Congressional investigation that forces the current Attorney General’s hand. So there is nothing at all “telling” about the lack of federal action so far. And if I’m not mistaken, at least twelve states have commenced investigations.

2. The law making such research legal was passed in 1993, and among those voting in favor of that bill was one Mitch McConnell, the same man who now claims that videos documenting what he voted to make legal “absolutely shock the conscience.” Other current GOP senators who backed that ’93 law were Richard Shelby, John McCain, Dan Coats, Chuck Grassley, Thad Cochran and Orrin Hatch, many of whom are now backing a shutdown.

Even if the research is authorized by law, it’s one thing to consider that research in the abstract, another altogether to confront graphically what it means and requires (the dissection of a recognizably human body). Perhaps the law needs to be changed. And even if we decide not to change the law that permits the research, there’s no reason why we have to fund either it or the organization that provides the human organs on which the researchers work.

3. Those receiving the fetal tissue are not ghouls of some sort, and the tissue is not being put to inappropriate or disrespectful use.  To the contrary, the tissue is crucial to research into treatments to extend and improve human life, research that would be impossible to conduct without that material. As the New York Times reports, “the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on research using fetal tissue in 2014 with grants to more than 50 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Yale and the University of California in Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.”

While we aren’t necessarily talking about Dr. Josef Mengele here, why must we assume a congruence between the demands of science and “democratic” morality? A careful reading of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis—the great work on science and politics written by the greatest and most perspicuous thinker on that subject—makes it clear enough for anyone who has eyes to see that there’s a pretty significant disconnect between science and ordinary morality. Curiosity and the ambition to master nature can take one pretty far from what’s decent and respectful. The more powerful science is, the greater mastery of nature it promises us, the more attention we must pay to it and the less we should avert our eyes from its practices. There may be benefits—which, by the way, are at the moment for the most part simply speculative—that aren’t worth the cost.

4. All tissue used in that research is donated by clinic patients, who receive no compensation for doing so. Their sole motive is to help fellow human beings. If we ban the use of such material in research, we accomplish absolutely nothing except to halt that potentially life-saving research. So which is the true “pro-life” position?

As C.S. Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, there’s a moral cost in treating human beings as meat, or of denying the humanity of a being that is recognizably human. In so doing, we run the palpable risk of dehumanizing ourselves, of numbing our moral sense. Indeed, Lewis’s work ought to be absolutely required reading for anyone who wishes to comment intelligently on these issues.

5. None of the $500 million in federal funding going to Planned Parenthood is used to finance abortions. It is used instead to give low-income women access to contraceptives, maternity care, breast-cancer and ovarian-cancer screenings, and vaccinations against sexually transmitted diseases. If we strip Planned Parenthood of funding for such programs as punishment for the “crime” of following the law and providing tissue for medical research, no other organization has the infrastructure, personnel and training to provide those health-care services. In effect, those women and their children would be the innocent victims of a successful effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

While there may not be a single national organization capable of picking up the slack of PPFA’s arguably overstated non-abortion business, the federal funding that it receives can be put to precisely the same use by a myriad of community health centers and nonprofits in the health, not the abortion, business all over the country. Indeed, the proposed Senate bill preserves every penny of women’s health funding, mandating simply that it go to health clinics, not abortion clinics.

I’ve mentioned two pieces of what I regard as required background reading. Let me close with a third, Dr. Leon Kass’ classic, “The Wisdom of Repugnance”:

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted-though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.