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.
One response to “A heart is more than tissue”
Engaging essay. Did you really mean:
The mainstream media is equal to the task, shaping the narrativeabout the video as a legal or political debate, obscuring the thorny ethical issues raised by pro-life activists.
It seems to me that they are no more up to the task the Planned Parenthood activists—they are not equal to it; instead the obfuscate and misdirect the argument to battlegrounds more their liking and advantage.
My own opinions regarding about abortion have also evolved, obviously as apart of my formal medical education, but even more so by my life in medicine since my graduation in 1998, and equally, my ever increasing return to Judaism that, perhaps more than science, has guided me in the art of medicine. To some degree, the abortion issue—at its core concern, when is a life a life?— parallel my own conflicting emotions regarding end of life issues that I deal with on nearly a weekly basis. When is it time to let nature take its course? When is death imminent? When is someone dead? As I write this, a 90 year old man with his heart failing, kidneys failing, and lungs failings—in short what we term multi organ failure—lays in the ICU, intubated, his blood pressure maintained by medications, a tangle of other tubes administering to his system nutrients, antibiotics, sedatives, etc, all the while surrounded by his family. His organ failure has been chronic, although obviously now exacerbated by precipitating events—in this case infection (sepsis) brought about by by gallstones clogging up the drainage pipe leading from his liver. The body doesn’t like its drainage system to meet with resistance or obstruction, and the stagnation and pressure breeds infection. I was consulted to remove the stones; but to what purpose? So he might pass away a few days, a week later? Or on my table? His short term survival seemed to be improbable—and seems so still. Yet, he survived my procedure. I was able to get all the stones out, along with some pus and sludge, and in the next twenty four hours he was off pressor support and hungry; then he coded—nothing to do with my procedure, and was incubated. Again, I sat with family, “laying crepe” as we term it, or, having a “come to Jesus meeting” with them (no matter the kippah on my head! After all, JC was a Jew, so who better to have such a meeting?). I still maintain it’s improbable that he should survive this hospitalization; but in fact, he seems to be doing just that. Today he is alert, though still intubated and with all organs in failure.
My point is that in my experience, the human body (and no less spirit) never ceases to amaze me in what it can endure and rebound from. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been struck by someone who has survived that which I thought not survivable or survived longer than I could have ever imagined (also as I write this, the father of a friend and colleague—an orthopedist— a few years behind us at Westminster—whose father I care for with pancreatic cancer has survived beyond what I could have ever imagined). As a further aside, I know this must be a topic which is intimate to you, an experience you understand from the first person perspective. I admit, when I heard of your condition, I was not supremely hopeful. My only hope lay in the fact that you were young and healthy. There was also my faith: I prayed for you every night and every day, offering your name up for a mishberech Saturday, Monday, and Thursday mornings, and didn’t stop mentioning you in my prayers until pictures of you out and about appeared on FB.
It cases like yours, like the 90 year old man, like my friend and colleagues father (who refuses to succumb to what in the end he must), and so many more I have been witness to that make me ask, Who am I to judge when it’s over? Why should I not put a feeding tube in someone if they want to live another day, another week? Who am I to say that that one day extra,or those few days extra, the family may have with their loved one is not the one day they treasure most of all the days they have shared? Should we deny them that? Should I deny them that? Is it in my power or place to do so? These situations may seem different the argument regarding abortion that you touch on, but I am sure you see the similarities more than the differences. The fact is, life is now viable as early as 26 weeks—and will only continue to decrease in the future; similarly the end of life is being ever extended, becoming equally ambiguous though less so than its origin. Its our struggle to determine if these challenges or ambiguities are truly moral one or challenges or ambiguous at all? Is there a fundamental difference between a complex hillock of cells that constitute our universal origins, and what others recognize as the human as early as the second trimester, if not sooner? Is the vegetive state death? I’m not sure.
I am sure, however, that the future of our entire culture and society is hinges on our answers to these questions. Forgoing the sensitivities and political correctness of our age, in the end it comes down to life—if we value it, how we value it. and when we choose to embrace the answers to these questions. Will it be day 21 when the heart first beats (that’s what we learned in med school), the moment of conception, the moment we recognize ourselves in the ultrasound—in both image and the doppler swoosh swoosh of the heartbeat— or at the moment we first cry out, taking our first breath? Is death when we deem it without quality or redeeming features by some consensus, when can no longer communicate or contribute (both slippery slopes that have undertones of Nazi ideology), when life can only be sustained artificially, or when there is no blood flow to the brain?
There can be no doubt that societies that have not valued life have not endured. I certainly believe we are a society in decline; though I do not believe are demise is inevitable. We are not a tragic people (meaning our world is not tragedy, in the Greek sense, where fate determines outcome, no matter how hard we struggle to alter it) but are a people blessed by G-d with the power to alter the course of history—indeed, from the Jewish perspective we are commanded by G-d to partake in Creation and repairing the world (Tikkun Olem).
Sorry for this long winded response. Its a compliment to your writing that diverted my other writing to put these off the cuff thoughts down; I hope you take it as the compliment it is intended. You see, I’m not capable of being concise.
Here’s a challenge for you: write a piece on the Stars and Bars. I’ve been thinking on its complex symbolism and was just today asked by my Rabbi what it meant to a Southerner (he’s not Southern). I’d like to hear your opinion.
Be Well Dw
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