It’s Complicated: A Pro-Choice Christian Responds to the Planned Parenthood Scandal

First, a confession: When I saw the first post in my Facebook news feed from a pro-life friend expressing horror at undercover videos produced by the Center for Medical Progress, showing a Planned Parenthood executive blithely discussing the harvesting of fetal body parts over wine and salad, my initial response was to jump to defensive mode. I commented on my friend’s post, noting that the video was highly edited and was also edited in such a way to imply that the footage was part of a televised news magazine investigation, which it was not. I made a few other points (some of which I will reiterate below) and actually, had a very civilized conversation with several other people, both pro-life and pro-choice.

But by jumping immediately to defensive mode, I reinforced the high-cost, divisive, cutthroat nature of abortion debate in this country. I reacted as a pro-choice person first, seeing the danger signs flashing for “my side,” instead of responding first as a Christian and a human being. I regret that. The bottom line is that watching people discussing the harvesting and selling of fetal body parts over lunch ought to make us cringe. There’s more to the issue and the videos than that, but that’s where I should have started, with a clear statement that, no matter our political position, people discussing the crushing of fetal skulls over lunch is a sign that something—that many things perhaps—have gone terribly wrong.

I’ve said all along in my public writing about abortion that it’s complicated. And it is. What follows here are simply a few thoughts about this scandal and where we might go next.

Some background and ground rules: I am pro-choice, which means that I support legal access to abortion within limits while also supporting initiatives, such as access to low-cost contraception and public policy supporting women and children, with potential to lower the abortion rate. This does not mean I am “pro-abortion.” You can read more about my position here, here and here. Because of the controversial and sensitive nature of abortion, I will be particularly committed to maintaining a safe comment section on this post; any comment that uses inflammatory or derogatory language and fails to move the conversation forward in useful ways will be deleted. I reserve sole right to determine which comments meet those criteria. Now, on with a few points to consider:

Fetuses weren’t the only ones dehumanized in the conversation that followed the video’s release. The videotaped lunchtime conversation made us cringe because the doctor was talking matter-of-factly about doing violence to body parts we recognize in ourselves and our children. Her words and demeanor implied that these parts were mere tissue, but every human being alive knows that our bodies are not mere matter, but the seat of our identity. Our bodies are how we connect with other people in both casual and intimate encounters. Our bodies are how we communicate emotions. They are us. The conversation dehumanized unborn fetuses in a way that ought to be objectionable to all of us, regardless of our position on legalized abortion.

But part of why I was so quick to rush to defensive mode is that Planned Parenthood, and the people who work there, are regularly and routinely dehumanized in a different way. I have seen Planned Parenthood cast, literally, as the “anti-Christ,” or more prosaically, simply as “evil.”

I grieve these labels, because I support legal abortion, but more so because Planned Parenthood isn’t a monolithic organization. It’s people. It’s the many friends who have received routine gynecological care and contraception at Planned Parenthood when they didn’t have health insurance. And it’s the two friends who work for local Planned Parenthood affiliates here in Connecticut, not because they think abortion is a wonderful thing, but because they care about women who need access to low-cost reproductive health care. These friends are, first and foremost, dedicated health care providers. What do they think about their organization providing abortions? The answer is complicated. But I recall one conversation in which one of my friends said, “If people knew the details of some of the situations involved when a young woman comes in for an abortion—situations involving incest, highly dysfunctional families, physical, psychological and emotional abuse—I think they’d have a hard time seeing an abortion as the wrong answer.”

When I rushed to defend Planned Parenthood in the video aftermath, I was defending my friends and the thousands of people like them who work for Planned Parenthood because they care deeply about their communities and the women and children in them. Fellow Christians, of all people, have a duty to recognize that an organization is made up of people, whose humanity ought to be as recognizable to us—and as deserving of respect—as the humanity of an unborn child.

The doctor was exhibiting a detachment from her work that is not uncommon in the medical field. Anyone who has had major surgery, an acute illness, or a chronic condition has interacted with medical professionals—even gifted, compassionate medical professionals—who sometimes forget that they are dealing with human beings, not with disconnected body parts. A group of medical students troupe into your hospital room at 7 a.m. and listen as the attending physician discusses your case as if you aren’t even there. A surgeon describing an upcoming procedure can’t mask his excitement about the complicated feats he will be performing, forgetting for a moment that those feats will be performed on a person who might not be so excited about being cut open and having her internal organs manipulated. A nurse chirpily reminds a couple grieving after a miscarriage or stillbirth that, “You can always have another one!”, as if the one they just lost was a mere thing to be replaced with a newer model.

That the doctor on the video was exhibiting a common shortcoming of medical caregivers doesn’t excuse her seeming indifference to the unborn babies’ whose parts she was discussing between sips of wine. But it ought to remind us that she, and those she works with at Planned Parenthood, are not demons in a special class all their own, but medical professionals who, like all medical professionals, mostly entered this field of work because they wanted to care for people, and who sometimes, in the grind and busyness and stress of their work, fail to treat patients—born and unborn—with the dignity they deserve.

The outcry would likely have been far less vehement—there might have been no outcry at all—if the doctor had been discussing the harvesting of cells from weeks-old embryos without recognizable body parts. This point is important because the abortion debate in our country is governed by black-and-white thinking. Either an unborn human being, whether days or weeks or months old, is morally equivalent to a newborn child and therefore all abortion, no matter at what stage of pregnancy, is murder OR any violence done to an unborn child at any stage before birth is morally acceptable because until birth, the fetus doesn’t count as a person. As I’ve written previously:

Politically charged pro-life/pro-choice debates have made it difficult to contemplate embryonic life because these debates insist on absolutes. Either embryos are the same as babies, or they are merely bunches of cells subject to their parents’ choices. I think most people, when pressed, would say that neither is quite true. Embryos occupy an in-between place. They are liminal; they serve as a doorway or threshold between one state of being (individual sperm and eggs that only have the potential for life until they join with the other) and another (the definitive, transforming presence of a newborn child). The threshold is essential for connecting those two states of being; it cannot be lightly discarded any more than a house can be built without doors. But it’s also more a passage to something vital than a destination in itself.

It’s worth noting that centuries-old religious traditions, as voiced by both church fathers such as Aquinas and by evangelical Christians as late as the 1980s, have believed that the process of an unborn embryo becoming a human being is one that occurs gradually, over time as a pregnancy progresses. This idea meshes with our gut sense that there is something different about crushing a recognizably human fetus’s skull and extracting cells from a blastocyst (as is routinely done in preimplantation genetic diagnosis and in vitro fertilization), or that miscarriage in the first trimester and stillbirth are qualitatively different experiences, even as both engender deep grief. What might it mean for our vitriolic debates over abortion if we were to reconsider the ancient wisdom that life might not, in fact, begin at the moment of conception, that humanity enters an unborn child gradually? What if we could agree that abortion is acceptable only in the earlier stages of pregnancy, before there is a skull that must be crushed for a fetus to be extracted?

The Planned Parenthood videos provide an invitation for Christians, both pro-life and pro-choice, to explore our common ground and find ways to move forward together. What if, instead of using the videos to re-articulate our positions and further define our differences, we admitted that the content of these videos is disturbing,  no matter what side of the political debate you’re on? What if we talked about what is disturbing, and why, and used our responses to figure out where we do and don’t agree about unborn life, pregnant women, and the proper role and attitude of medical professionals?

I firmly believe that there is common ground to be had on abortion, between the pro-choice and pro-life sides. Back in March, I hosted here an interview by my friend and staunch pro-life advocate Karen Swallow Prior with Charlie Camosy, whose book Beyond the Abortion Wars urges us, among other things, to drop divisive labels and talk about ways to provide resources to pregnant women so that they will choose to bear rather than abort their babies. I’m excited about what could change in the tone and content of our discourse if we saw beyond labels and looked for values and ideas we hold in common.

Last week, Karen Swallow Prior came under a vicious and prolonged attack by a pastor and blogger intent on undermining her conservative credentials and accusing her of “shocking liberalism.” One of his core accusations? That she conducted that interview on my blog. (If you click on the link above, I’d advise you not to go too far down the rabbit hole of competing accusations. Even those who have supported Karen in the face of them don’t have very nice things to say about liberal Christians.)

There is something deeply wrong with Christian culture when seeking common ground on a divisive political issue constitutes heretical behavior in the eyes of some self-appointed gatekeepers.

Do I stand with Planned Parenthood? That depends on what you mean by that. I believe Planned Parenthood is a vital provider of women’s health care. I certainly stand by my friends who work there. As for the videos themselves, I’m mostly sitting back and listening, trying to figure the best way forward. I’m not joining the voices condemning Planned Parenthood outright, but neither am I signing any petition to support Planned Parenthood. I don’t think that reinforcing our entrenched positions is the way forward. I think conversation is the way forward. I just don’t know if that way is feasible so long as some see any attempt at conversation and common ground as a capitulation to the enemy.

What do you think? Is there enough common ground among Christians on abortion to support a less divisive way forward? What should be our response to the Planned Parenthood videos? (Remember to be excruciatingly polite in the comments please. Note that I will delete comments that are derogatory, inflammatory, and those that fail to engage with the post and just reiterate ideological phrases we’ve all heard before.)

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