Putting Planned Parenthood’s “only 3%” claim in proper, moral context

Americans love to place moral matters in the realm of equations and numbers because it instantly turns everything into flat percentages and lifeless digits

I rarely watch “The O’Reilly Factor” (which too often comes off as an hour-long infomercial for books titled Killing So-and-So), but I just caught a few minutes of a segment on the Planned Parenthood videos. And, once again, some morally-challenged public relations princess—pretty, tough, and wearing a red power dress—trotted out the tired “97% of what Planned Parenthood does has nothing to do with abortion” line, which is the more positive way of claiming that abortions make up only 3% of what that vile cabal does behind closed doors.

Those numbers, of course, have been challenged. Rich Lowry of National Review recently wrote, in a New York Post opinion piece:

Practically every defender of the organization, fighting to preserve its federal funding, reverts to the 3 percent figure. How could you possibly, they ask, defund a group that devotes itself overwhelmingly to uncontroversial procedures and services for women?

The 3 percent figure is an artifice and a dodge, but even taking it on its own terms, it’s not much of a defense. Only Planned Parenthood would think saying that they only kill babies 3 percent of the time is something to brag about.

The group performs about 330,000 abortions a year, or roughly 30 percent of all the abortions in the country. By its own accounting in its 2013-2014 annual report, it provides about as many abortions as Pap tests (380,000). The group does more breast exams and provides more breast-care services (490,000), but not by that much. The 3 percent figure is derived by counting abortion as just another service like much less consequential services. So abortion is considered a service no different than a pregnancy test (1.1 million), even though a box with two pregnancy tests can be procured from the local drugstore for less than $10.

Lowry likens this to Major League Baseball teams saying “that they sell about 20 million hot dogs and play 2,430 games in a season, so baseball is only .012 percent of what they do.” But in doing so, he pushes aside the key issue at hand: the morality of the action involved.

What if Jared Bogle, who recently plummeted from Subway sandwich fame and fortune to child porn shame and infamy, was to make the argument, “I only photographed and touched 3% of the children I was around”? How would that fly? Do you think it might sway people to think he really isn’t that bad of a guy?

Or, what if sadistic serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, and necrophile Ted Bundy had made the statement: “I ended up kidnapping and killing just 3% of the women I wanted to. And, besides, I spent a lot of time doing things that were perfectly legal. You can’t judge me just on the thirty women I’m known to have killed.”

Try this: imagine a Catholic priest, having been caught molesting one boy, saying, “It was only one instance—and I’ve been a good priest for thirty years! I’ve spent countless hours helping the poor, visiting the sick, and tending to my parish.”

Do you believe that would go over well? Didn’t think so.

Or, imagine if a neo-Nazi group set up shelters where homeless people could go, be fed, and have shelter. Imagine that the skinheads who ran things handed out racist, hate-filled literature to 3% of those who visited the shelters. What if those racists received millions of dollars each year to help the homeless? No problem, right? Imagine them saying, when called on the carpet: “Well, 97% of what we do is not related to our beliefs in race purity and Jewish conspiracies and the subhuman qualities of blacks.” Considering that the very thought of a Confederate flag makes many people tuck into a fetal position, I doubt that argument would gain traction.

Americans love to place moral matters in the realm of equations and numbers because it instantly turns everything into flat percentages and lifeless digits. It removes the horror from the actions and parses evil into statistical categories.

One remarkable thing about the undercover videos involving Planned Parenthood personnel is that they don’t involve discussions of the millions of babies killed, but usually are quiet, civilized conversations about one specific fetus. Hearing that 57,762,169 abortions have been committed since 1973 can be, in a strange way, quite abstract and detached. Hearing about, or watching, the body of one child being cut, diced, sliced, and dismembered for specific body parts is truly horrifying. It is, to borrow the phrase, the scandal of particularity; it is the shock caused by inhumane violence rendered to a specific human. 

Planned Parenthood wants this to be about numbers. But it is really about living, breathing boys and girls, harvested and discarded. And calmly referring to “only 3%” while under lights and on camera, with perfect make-up and intonation, just makes it that much more diabolical. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.