Abortion proponents already know that abortion ends a child’s life, as the Planned Parenthood undercover videos display. They just think a mother has a right to make that choice.
If you followed the political fight over Planned Parenthood last year, you are probably dumber now. An anti-abortion group’s release last summer of a dozen undercover videos of Planned Parenthood executives talking about selling fetal tissue for research led to congressional hearings, state investigations, and failed efforts to deny the group federal funding.
The anniversary of Roe v. Wade Thursday offers us a chance to take stock of how little difference all of that made. The controversy over Planned Parenthood resulted in just about zero productive political conversation between people who disagree about abortion law. It is just a small exaggeration to say no one learned a thing.
It didn’t have to be that way.
The videos caused Democrats and Republicans to retreat to respective ideological corners. Lawmakers in both parties communicated only with their bases. That was no shock. Abortion, more than every other social issue, is an issue lawmakers love to fight over, not legislate on. With Roe v. Wade enshrined, Congress has limited power to change abortion law. Their incentive, on display this week, is to show supporters they agree with them. The point is to fight publicly, not to win.
Videos Like This Don’t Win Hearts
But a cynical approach to the videos was not inevitable. Whether you think the Center for Medical Progress, which created the videos, was heroic or shady in tricking Planned Parenthood officials into embarrassing statements, the fact remains: Their nonchalance about abortion and the sale of fetal tissue should disturb most people.
For that reason, the videos offered a starting point—a chance in Congress and living rooms for political conversations that advance understanding of why the group receives support from some of the population and animosity from another. But that required granting the opposing view some legitimacy. It required acknowledging tradeoffs. We missed that chance. Many share fault.
Critics of abortion wanted the videos to move public opinion in their favor, and push legislatures to increase restrictions on abortion. They should have remembered that the videos motivate, almost exclusively, people who already oppose abortion rights.
Those who support allowing abortion were not swayed, because the videos were presented in a way that makes them easily ignored. A boatload of studies on cognitive dissonance show most people ignore information that conflicts with their existing strongly held views, and look for information that discredits the conflicting view.
Frame It as Immoral, Not Illegal
Seen in that light, abortion critics erred by promoting the relatively weak argument that the videos show Planned Parenthood officials engaged in illegal organ harvesting, rather than unseemly conversation and immoral actions, legal or not. Once defenders of the group decided the claim of illegal activity wasn’t true, they tuned out, dismissing the controversy as a frame job.
The sale of fetal tissue, while outrageous to people who oppose abortion, is easily rationalized by abortion rights advocates. If the fetus died in what they consider a legally defensible procedure, using the tissue for research is morally comparable to organ donation. By relying on edited videos and conservative pundits that abortion rights voters don’t trust, Planned Parenthood critics offered easy excuses to those inclined to dismiss the information by quibbling with the messengers.
Critics of abortion rights might have influenced more people who didn’t agree with them by dialing back moral instruction (“You are flawed if you don’t react as I do to this”) in favor of a request to have their values acknowledged (“Please consider my profound moral objections to the practices depicted here”).
For their part, Democrats and commentators backing Planned Parenthood reacted to the videos by seizing on excuses to avoid talking about the videos’ content. Pundits on the Left focused on presidential candidate Carly Fiorina misleadingly claiming a video depicts “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
Abortion Is a Tradeoff Between Mother and Child
But arguing about what isn’t in the videos is in part a way to avoid talking about what is. Focusing on arguably dicey editing and the less controversial health services Planned Parenthood offers might have its place. But it is a way to avoid grappling with the undeniably difficult fact the videos present: Even if you support women’s right to choose it, abortion involves moral conflict.
Continue reading below…