“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered… in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” — C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once posed the following question concerning fetal tissue to a medical researcher: If it were a delicacy, could you eat it? Beyond the horrifying “medical” practices described in the Planned Parenthood videos, their most disgusting feature is not the nonchalant tone, for which Planned Parenthood issued an apology, but the fact that at least some conversations took place over a meal. Aside from calling to mind Hannibal Lecter’s predilection for liver, fava beans and a nice chianti, the setting of the videos makes clear that however refined may have been the upbringing of the Planned Parenthood employees, they apparently did not have parents who said of this or that topic, “Not at the dinner table!”
Disgusting? Disturbing? How about barbaric and evil? Even some who reject the pro-life cause describe the content of these videos in dark terms indeed. But what kind of barbarism?
A number of commentators have made analogies to the Nazis. Some of it is darkly humorous twitter commentary. Riffing on Molly Ivans’ comment about a Pat Buchanan speech, National Review’s Kevin Williamson tweeted: “I thought Planned Parenthood’s explanation sounded a lot more convincing in the original German”. Some have noted the connection between Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s support of eugenics and that of the Nazis. Others have cited interesting historical facts such as Mengele’s post-Holocaust employment as an abortionist. Perhaps the most telling similarity is a shared philosophy of what the Nazis called “life and unworthy of life.”
And yet, I’m not sure the Nazis analogy is entirely apt. There are broadly two dominant strains to modernity. There is the original myth of modernity, which is that of an enlightenment liberation from the evils of tradition; this strain is progressive, universalist, technocratic, and rationalist. The Nazis come from the other side of modernity, the romantic-nationalist reaction against progressive, universalist enlightenment.
Whatever might have been the historical roots of the organization, contemporary Planned Parenthood supporters are not nationalists; they are not reacting against modernity; they are not asserting the superiority of one race over another. They are implementing enlightenment goals. They are progressive, instrumentalist rationalists, intent on implementing enlightenment policies of science and freedom. But, as Dostoevsky pointed out convincingly in works like Notes From Underground and Crime and Punishment, their very self-understanding as enlightened progressives renders them vulnerable to the dangerous illusion of thinking that they are immune to the universal human penchant for self-delusion and that they have left behind the perennial penchant of our species for self-justifying evil.
As Pascal observed, we hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves. We tell ourselves that our commitment to moral principles of one sort of another means that we cannot do grave evil. We work, as Lewis observes, “in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices”; we dress nicely; we “do not need to raise” our “voices.” We justify, or turn a blind eye to, pernicious acts because they are done with good intentions or for a greater good, the good of science, progress, and the improvement of mankind. Indeed, a number of articles claiming to “fact-check” or provide the “real story behind” the videos focus exclusively on whether Planned Parenthood profits from the harvesting of unborn baby organs. Admittedly some of the critics have done this as well. Even though these articles concede that such parts are not really necessary for research, they focus on the fact, the utility of research.
As perverse as it sounds, their implicit response to Pope Francis’ description of abortion as part of a “throwaway culture” is that Planned Parenthood is in fact a bastion of conservation, making good use of aborted organ parts for the betterment of mankind. Thus do they redeem abortion.
Here abortion is no longer—as it was for so long in the liberal defense of its legality—a tragic necessity, a regrettable lesser of two evils, in the face of insurmountable circumstances. Instead, it has been rationalized, instrumentalized, redeemed as part of enlightenment progress. That allows the defenders of Planned Parenthood to deflect their attention elsewhere, away from the act of abortion itself.
A different means to the same end could be seen in last summer’s abortion rom-com, Obvious Child, about a mediocre stand-up comedienne who seeks an abortion of a pregnancy from a one-night stand. Lauded as “refreshing”, “honest”, and “sophisticated”, the film involves a Valentine’s Day visit to an abortion clinic (described as a “trip to the DMV”). By turning abortion itself into a matter of straightforward comedy, the film removes abortion from the realm of public debate and rids it of the stigma of shame and burden of guilt. Contemporary liberalism seeks to remove abortion not just from queries about its legality but also from the realm of serious moral debate.The night before the abortion the pregnant comedienne, about to perform, responds to her friend’s words of encouragement (“You are going to kill it out there!”), with the quip: “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow.” Not to be outdone, in this summer’s indie hit, Grandma, abortion is a bonding experience between a lesbian grandmother (Lily Tomlin) and her pregnant granddaughter.
But the Planned Parenthood videos are a reminder of what is being aborted or, to put it bluntly, “killed”, as the woman in Obvious Child nonchalantly concedes.
And that, after all, is the true horror here—not the issue of profit, however legitimate are the questions, legal and moral, that have been raised. The barbarism has to do with precisely what or who is being vivisected, harvested, and instrumentalized. To listen to the description of the practices is to be rendered incapable of speaking of the unborn as merely generic, fetal tissue. These are the organs of human persons; otherwise, they would not be so desired by researchers. “Everybody wants liver…”
Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, reminds us how corrosive our self-deception and indifference in such matters can be:
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”. (par 120)
The content of these videos is simply too much for enlightened progressive to face, as is clear from the almost nonexistent discussion of them in the mainstream media. Might the growing scientific clarity about what abortion actually involves be the motive for the turn to comedic dismissal in recent films? What better way to protect abortion from intellectual probing and rational argument than to treat it as utterly trivial, a matter of light comedy?
However well-educated, however refined the manners, however high the ideals of the supporters of Planned Parenthood, it is, as Lewis describes it, “a thoroughly nasty business concern”—a barbarism at the heart of advanced Western civilization.
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