Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards committed a tactical error when she apologized for the “tone” taken by Dr. Deborah Nucatola in the video surreptitiously shot by members of the pro-life group Center for Medical Progress.
From a pro-choice point of view, Dr. Nucatola did nothing wrong by reviewing, in detail, Planned Parenthood’s techniques for ensuring the survival of organs belonging to aborted fetuses. Planned Parenthood has stated that it is not breaking any laws by profiting from the sale of these organs, and claims that denial is supported by full transcripts of the three-hour conversation. By donating the organs to research facilities and recouping only storage costs, the official line goes, the organization is performing a public service.
Its president could very well have said: “This is how we do business. There’s nothing wrong with it. Get over it.”
Instead, Richards went on record avowing, “Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide,” adding that in the video, “one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion,” and concluding, “This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements.”
But who, in Richards’ mind, should Dr. Nucatola have shown more compassion toward? As far as Dr. Nucatola knew, she was responding to inquiries from people who shared her views and approved everything Planned Parenthood did. As a doctor and head of Planned Parenthood’s medical operations, she might have been expected to discuss those operations without sounding squeamish or pious.
Maybe Richards meant that Dr. Nucatola should have spoken more reverently of the babies whose organs she meant to extract and donate. If so, then the jig is up. Acknowledging that fetal tissue comes from something deserving of reverence kicks the struts out from under Planned Parenthood’s conceptual framework, to the point where the organization starts looking like the second coming of Burke and Hare.
Or maybe Richards meant that Dr. Nucatola should have spoken more delicately for the sake of laypeople – the ones she had no way of knowing she’d end up addressing – who lack the background and experience to appreciate the hard realities involved in any medical procedure. In that case, the jig’s still up. Inevitably, allowing that it’s a dirty job raises the question of whether someone really has to do it.
Either way, behind Richards’ skittish statement is an admission that there’s something in a blasé discussion of abortion procedures that should upset the average person. According to one ethicist, instinctive disgust or horror should not be ignored or explained away so readily. After British researchers had succeeded in cloning a sheep, Leon Kass wrote: “In crucial cases…repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.”Kass, a doctor, was well placed to observe how mankind, “Enchanted and enslaved by the glamour of technology,” had lost its “awe and wonder before the deep mysteries of nature and of life.” And yet there remain moments so gut-wrenching that the awe returns – on its reverse face, horror – with a shudder.
For me, this was one of those moments. Never having had to deal with a crisis
pregnancy, I try to tread humbly where abortion is concerned. I haven’t mentioned it since Philadelphia abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted of murdering three live babies. But Dr. Gosnell was a tenth-rate hacksaw artist who could always be written off as an aberration. Dr. Nucatola is as worthy a representative as the field could hope to produce. Reading the transcript, comparing her sensitivity to the requirements of CYA with her cloddish references to “crushing,” it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve gotten a little too casual about human life.
This position could be merely typical. Statisticians have noted that opposition to gay marriage has come “uncoupled,” no pun intended, from opposition to abortion. Even as the first has fallen off dramatically, the second has remained constant. In the New York Times, David Leonhardt and Alicia Parlapiano theorize that Americans generally come around to supporting the extension of rights to groups historically denied them. On issues that can be defined in terms of competing rights, however, opinion remains divided. Even framed in its most neutral terms, abortion is a competition between a pregnant woman’s right to control her body and an unborn baby’s right to be born.
There is a hard core of pro-choicers that refuses to consider that any right-thinking people could accept that frame. “Americans,” writes Amanda Marcotte, to explain the pro-life movement’s refusal to die, “are ambivalent about women’s equality.” Cecile Richards could have taken that line if she’d wanted to, but she didn’t. Instead, without realizing it, she threw a bone to the competition and tacitly acknowledged that her position isn’t quite unassailable.
Who knows? Maybe Richards, like the lower-level Planned Parenthood workers who jolly themselves through the job with gallows humor, has to repress a shudder of her own every now and then.