To read this article on the web, click here.
December 29, 2015
In the meantime, I've put a stripped down version of the site at an alternative address, www.tracinskiltr.com. It's "TracinskiLetter," but with "letter" replaced by "ltr." It will allow me to post articles while I go through the tedious job of rebuilding the full site. It will also allow me to continue my Holiday Sale for subscriptions, gift subscriptions, and renewals, which I have extended it another week to make up for the week the site was down. See the Holiday Sale notice below.--RWT
As we reach the end of the year, I have begun counting down the top news stories of the year and my own coverage of them. I started with #5, the phantom menace of global warming. Story #4 is one that involves us in a controversy that is less scientific--despite how it may appear at first--and more metaphysical: the revival of the abortion debate by an exposé of Planned Parenthood's harvesting of organs from aborted fetuses.
After a close initial look at this controversy, I became pre-occupied by the unexpectedly turbulent beginning of the Republican presidential primaries (top story #2, in case you were wondering). So this is partly a review of my early commentary on Planned Parenthood, but also an opportunity to revisit it.
Buy a subscription or renewal and get 15% off, now through the end of the year. Follow the link just above, which will take you to a button you can click to pay with Paypal or with a credit or debit card.
The Tracinski Letter also makes a great gift. On the payment page, just under where you enter your own e-mail address, you will be prompted to enter instructions; please include the gift recipient's name, e-mail address, and any gift message. I'll add the recipient to the list and make sure they get a notice of the gift.
Go to TracinskiLtr.com while this holiday sale lasts.--RWT
A few years back, I predicted that the Kermit Gosnell case would revive abortion as a political issue. This was the story of a Philadelphia doctor who specialized in no-questions-asked late-term abortions. He deliberately operated on the line between abortion and infanticide--and charged right over it, delivering babies live before killing them.
While that case inspired new restrictions on late-term abortions in some states, it didn't have as big an impact on the abortion debate as I expected. In retrospect, I can see why: it is precisely because Gosnell went over an unambiguous line, killing live-born infants, and thus could be dismissed not as a mere abortionist but as a murderer.
What finally revived the abortion debate this year is the release of undercover videos of conversations between officials of Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, and an anti-abortion activist who was posing as a broker for medical researchers. The conversations revealed the practice of harvesting body parts from aborted fetuses for use in medical research.
The videos were billed by the Center for Medical Progress--the pro-life group behind the sting--as evidence that Planned Parenthood was profiting from "selling organs." In a thorough review of the first video, I concluded that there was little real evidence Planned Parenthood was in it for the money and much evidence against it.
"The one basis in the [first] video for the claim that Planned Parenthood is doing this for profit is a single line in which [Deborah] Nucatola says Planned Parenthood 'affiliates'--the individual clinics--want to 'better than break even' on each transaction. Yet, despite claims to the contrary, that's not what the quote means in context. "Here is the immediate context: 'I think for affiliates, at the end of the day, they're a non-profit, they just don't want to--they want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they're happy to do that. Really their bottom line is, they want to break even.' "'The bottom line is, we want to break even,' is a line never spoken by anyone who was in a profit-seeking enterprise. So it's clear that 'a little better than break even' was meant to refer to a small cushion to avoid taking a loss, not to the idea that the sale of organs would be a profit stream. And Nucatola repeatedly emphasizes this."At the end of the day, I concluded, the exchange of money was not the real issue.
"For all the headlines about 'selling organs,' nobody really cares about the money. Pro-lifers would not be mollified if an independent auditor confirmed that Planned Parenthood isn't making a profit, or if all the costs were covered by private donations. The issue is the abortions that are being performed in the first place. The harvesting of the organs is secondary, and the prospect that someone might be profiting from it is even less important."Later on, I argued that some of the dialogue from these videos had become "memified"--used as slogans or stand-ins for one's opposition to abortion, without regard for the accuracy of their meaning in the original context.
"I'm thinking of the way the 'Mission Accomplished' banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln was used against George W. Bush. In context, it wasn't President Bush's expression of triumphalism; it was for the sailors and aviators on the aircraft carrier, who had in fact accomplished their mission. But it became a stand-in for a narrative about all the reasons lefties didn't like Bush. Its original meaning disappeared, and the accuracy of that meaning no longer mattered. It became, not a real idea, but a meme, not an argument but a symbol for a collection of biases. "Phrases like 'better than break even' or 'I want a Lamborghini' are becoming similar memes, used as shorthand for a narrative about the cynical, smirking evil of Planned Parenthood--even if, in context, they don't necessarily support that narrative. And as they harden into memes, they become resistant to debate and questioning. Since we've already accepted the intent of the meme, the portrayal of Planned Parenthood as cold-blooded organ-selling baby killers, then anyone who questions the meme must be defending baby-killers, right? So why should we listen to him? In this way, the meme itself functions to invalidate any criticism or analysis of it. "An awful lot of our public debate looks exactly like this."This, of course, put me at odds with most of my colleagues at The Federalist. But it may help explain what eventually happened with the Planned Parenthood videos. In warning against "memification," I also speculated that "my pro-life friends and colleagues are going to be disappointed...by how little this whole controversy is going to move the abortion debate a year or two from now." Part of the strategy of the Center for Medical Progress was to release the videos week after week for about 12 weeks, keeping the story continuously alive. But that was thwarted by three developments. First, legal challenges stopped the release of some of the videos directly by the CMP, and they had to be "leaked" elsewhere. So the orderly rollout of one revelation after another became something of a confused jumble (which is given a little more order here). Second, the subsequent videos do not contain fundamentally new revelations but more discussion of the same issues, perhaps with statements that can be viewed as slightly more explicit, and certainly with more grisly video images (more on that in a bit). But most of all, the CMP's decision to overstate the evidence in the early videos allowed the left-leaning media to dismiss everything that came afterward as "discredited" and "selectively edited," giving them the excuse to go back to ignoring the story after the first month or so. Yet in that first overview of the videos, I argued that the left is wrong to dismiss the story, because the underlying argument about the morality and legality of abortion is one we need to take seriously.
"The defenders of abortion have a bad habit of trying to evade the procedure's ugly aspects. Abortion is not a normal, ordinary thing, it is always some kind of tragedy, and it raises real ethical questions. So to be dismissive of this story is to dismiss the whole argument over abortion. This is the left's usual trick of trying to win the debate by never having one. "So we get major news organizations blacking out this story or offering obvious spin, and partisan media stridently asserting that it's a 'hoax.' "As with the Kermit Gosnell case--the specifics of which were much more repugnant than this--they foolishly think that they can make the story disappear. Instead, they somehow manage to seem both secretly guilty and genuinely indifferent to the disturbing aspects of abortion. This is the occupational hazard of the partisan: you can become so dedicated to a certain idea or practice that you defend it reflexively and irrationally, turning yourself into the caricature your opponents have set up for you."This was on display most clearly when Carly Fiorina gave an impassioned answer on abortion at one of the Republican debates and mentioned footage in a CMP video of a 19-week-old fetus that was still alive after being removed from the womb. The media denied the video even existed or stated that it was from a stillborn fetus. It turns out that two pieces of footage were used, one from a baby that was born prematurely and died of natural causes (no fetus is viable at that gestational age) and one a fetus that is claimed to have been aborted. The footage was used to illustrate testimony from a former abortion clinic worker describing a similar case. Using footage from one case to illustrate a very similar case may constitute an emotional appeal, but is not dishonest. It is an accurate visual representation of what the case being described would have looked like. In dismissing this as a "lie" on Fiorina's part, the mainstream media is trying to avoid recognizing the concrete meaning and sometimes grisly reality of the practice they are defending--which makes them poor defenders of their position. In response both to the over-hyped claims of the CMP and the evasiveness of the media, I had suggested that what we need is "a deeper, longer discussion which depends more on philosophy and basic principles than on emotion." A good framework for that discussion is the attempt to create an analogy between abortion and slavery, and therefore between today's pro-life movement and the 19th-century abolitionists. You can see the immediate appeal of this argument. It offers hope to anti-abortion activists, by offering a historical example of an institution that was once widely accepted and justified, only to be rejected and stamped out when the public was awakened to its evils. The analogy casts the pro-life movement in the role of those who woke a nation's conscience, while putting the pro-choice movement in the position of apologists for slavery--whom history has not exactly judged kindly. So this theme has been taken up several times by my colleagues at The Federalist, but most fully by Jayme Metzgar, who offers what is probably the best version of the argument. The justifications for the legality of slavery, she points out, were based on the belief that blacks were "sub-human."
"For those trying to create a category of sub-humans, though, the tricky part is where to draw the arbitrary lines. In the same way that we moderns debate the stage at which a child becomes fully human, legislatures of the 19th century grappled with the question of how much white blood entitled someone to legal personhood. The standards varied from state to state, with many states setting the line at one-eighth to one-fourth African ancestry before a person could be owned and sold as property. After the Civil War, when Southern legislatures were busy shoring up racial segregation, the radical 'one-drop rule' became more prevalent, under which any amount of African ancestry disqualified you from the privileges enjoyed by whites. "In practice, personhood was in the eye of the (white) beholder. If you appeared white, your chance of living as a free citizen was high. One can't help seeing a similar double standard today: the value of an unborn child's life is in the eye of the mother. We all refer to the developing child as a 'baby' in wanted pregnancies, rightly grieving for unborn children killed by drunk drivers or knife-wielding psychopaths. But when a mother isn't sure she wants to be pregnant, babies become 'products of conception.' They might be pre-human--sub-human--but they're not fully human."Yet this is exactly the point at which the analogy breaks down. It does not require some crackpot theory of racial superiority to claim that a fetus is "pre-human" or "less than fully human," because being less than fully human is the whole point of fetal development, which begins with a single cell and takes many months to produce an individual in human form that is capable of surviving outside the womb. To be more precise, a fetus is human for the whole process, in the same way that a sperm cell or an unfertilized egg is human. But it is not yet a human, with a full human form, capable of sustaining life--because that's what it is building, cell by cell, over months. A fetus is not a person, but then again, it certainly isn't the opposite of a person. It is becoming a person. It is potential person, in the process of being actualized. For this reason, some of the binary terminology both sides try to force on the issue just doesn't apply. Let me give an analogy. Suppose you and I are standing in a field and I throw a ball toward you, and while the ball is still in flight someone asks: Who has the ball? Is it in his hands, or is it in yours? At that moment, it's the wrong question. The ball isn't in either of our hands. It's in the process of moving from one person to the next. To continue to ask the question, to insist on asking it, would put you on the road to becoming like one of those Ancient Greek philosophers who denied the existence of motion on the grounds that everything has to be at either one location or another. It's similarly inappropriate to ask whether a fetus is a "baby" or "just a clump of cells." The answer is "neither," or better yet "both": it's a clump of cells that is in the process of becoming a baby. Come to think of it, the same philosopher who denied the existence of motion also denied the process of becoming. Yet that is precisely the concept needed to deal with the question of whether a fetus is a person. The process of a fertilized egg becoming a person is a continuum. At the extremes, it is relatively easy to make clear distinctions. An embryo that is only a few weeks old is not a baby. Its parents might call it that, in anticipation--I've done it--but looked at for what it actually is, an embryo with undifferentiated organs is not a person, not yet. Even religious traditions vary on this subject, with some declaring that a fetus is not a person until after 40 days of gestation. It is only more recently, partly due to the influence of John Paul II, that the American religious right came over consistently to the modern Catholic view that "ensoulment" happens at conception. A fetus at seven months, by contrast, is a baby, or close enough to it for the difference to be moot. It looks like a baby, its organs are fully developed, and it is capable of surviving outside of its mother. To kill a fetus at this later stage of development would require a rare and extraordinary justification, such as a threat to the life of the mother that requires one to choose between the two. But to get an idea of how deeply denial sets in, particularly when partisan advantage is at stake, consider a feminist's complaint that a photo of a 14-week fetus kind of looks like a baby. What did she expect it to look like, a rutabaga? This is Parmenides again, denying the existing of change, motion, and becoming. Yet to deny the differences between a baby and an embryo would be to commit the same error in the other direction: it denies the metaphysical category of "becoming" and tries to make everything all into one thing. The truly difficult cases are the ones in the middle of the continuum, from after the initial embryonic stage to the point of viability--roughly 9 weeks of gestation to 28 weeks, or maybe a bit earlier. And that is precisely the stage of development involved in most of the CMP videos, which mostly cover cases that range from about 16 to 25 weeks. So we can see why this case cuts so deep. It targets one of nature's truly difficult dividing lines: the area on the continuum at which a fetus is most rapidly in the process of becoming a person. I would like to find a reasonable way to draw those distinctions, to create a continuum in which there are no government restrictions on the one end and increasing levels of oversight--deferring to informed judgments about actual medical necessity--at the other end. Which is where most people end up standing on this issue. I don't consider this a middle road or compromise between opposing principles, but rather a recognition of the proper metaphysical category for understanding the issue. Being able to draw that kind of reasonable line along a continuum requires a rejection of the artificial Parmenidean dualism in which everything is either all one thing or all another thing, and there is no process of change or becoming. It also gives us some hope of escaping the political implications of the comparison of abortion to slavery and of the pro-choice movement to the abolitionists. Because that conflict ended in a civil war. Precisely because slavery was an all or nothing proposition--its victims were either human beings or they weren't--it allowed for less political compromise, and it produced the longest and bitterest of our nation's conflicts. The bitterness of this year's battle over abortion is something I noted in arguing against a proposed bill to defund Planned Parenthood, on the grounds that it was an attempt to punish a specific organization without any need for trial. "Government policies should be guided by rules that apply to everyone, rather than having the winds of political fortune divide us into favorites and outcasts." In effect, it was an end-run around the rule of law.
"A lot of pro-life people will respond: who cares about the propriety of the means we use when the people we're fighting are so evil? All's fair in guerrilla war. But that's the problem. This is what everyone says. It's the mentality used to justify every dastardly attack someone aims at us. Who cares if it's violating the rules to, say, threaten to cancel the broadcast licenses for Rupert Murdoch and Fox, because they're so evil? And that's why we can't throw out the rules of propriety: they're there to protect us, too."But asking for anyone to keep that kind of perspective is a bit difficult at the moment. The Planned Parenthood sting videos did not just revive the debate over abortion. They revived the raw emotions about it on the right, which have been solidified by memification--just as the fear of losing has pushed the "pro-choice" left into a defensive crouch of evasion and denial.
So this is the year in which the battle lines over abortion were significantly hardened.