When I was a twenty-something student, a friend of mine confided how he had got his girlfriend pregnant, and how he had quickly resolved the problem by getting her an abortion. The aborted fetus was just a little piece of tissue, he explained. Hardly anything that looked like a human life.
With zero personal knowledge at the time to suggest otherwise, I took comfort in this straight-forward explanation. And for many years since I have resisted wading too far into the emotionally charged abortion debate. The moral ambiguities just did not seem acute enough to take a position against unfettered abortion rights. After all, a policy that would force a woman to see her unwanted pregnancy to term is also not morally unambiguous.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and we see a brighter light shining on the less than comfortable realities of abortion on demand. In a secretly recorded video published this week by the pro-life group Center for Medical Progress, Planned Parenthood executive Deborah Nucatola casually discusses methods for harvesting fetal organs during an abortion procedure.
Instantly battle lines were drawn. Conservative pundits and politicians raced to denounce Planned Parenthood for grisly, potentially illegal practices. Liberals quickly counterattacked, defending the organization and disparaging the “anti-choice” motives of critics.
Both sides are being disingenuous when they focus on the legality of the practice. Whether abortion providers are “selling” organs for profit or “donating” them for vital medical research, partisans seem to be fighting a proxy battle in the bigger war over abortion rights.
A more fair-minded debate would explore the ethical quandary of harvesting fetal organs in the first place. That harvested organs might be used for life-saving medical research in no way cleanses them of immoral provenance. We do not condone the horrific medical research conducted by Nazi physicians during the Holocaust — of for that matter, the modern day extraction of organs from executed Chinese inmates — because the victims did not freely consent to bodily assault.
Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tries to blur the issue. “We help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research,” Ferrero insists, “and we do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does — with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.”
One would think he is talking about a pint of blood at the local blood bank. Organs are more than tissue, and the patient who is granting consent is not the one whose organs are being harvested during an abortion.
On the video Nucatola explains how to “crush” the fetus in the just the right place — not to extract assorted nondescript tissue, but so as to preserve the vital organs, “getting heart, lung, liver… all intact.”
As a father I now do have personal knowledge about fetal development. A baby’s heart starts to beat by about the fifth week of gestation. By six weeks it is pumping blood, so that you can hear it on an ultrasound machine. When you terminate a pregnancy at this stage, the fetus may not be viable outside the womb, but it is pretty hard to say it is just a piece of tissue.
The pro-choice industrial complex is so fearful of weakening abortion rights that it refuses to engage honestly on such legitimately problematic concerns. The mainstream media is equal to the task, shaping the narrative about the video as a legal or political debate, obscuring the thorny ethical issues raised by pro-life activists.
The arc of history so often regaled by President Obama may be trending leftward on gay marriage and drug policy, but the jury is still out on abortion restrictions. While most Americans are not keen to outlaw abortion, a significant percentage sees virtue in erecting a speed bump or two.
Why shouldn’t a fetal ultrasound be required before a woman consents to aborting her fetus? Some percentage of women might reconsider their decision when they hear their little piece of tissue beating a hundred times per minute.