When I first saw the bombshell video of a Planned Parenthood doctor blithely describing over lunch how to crush unborn babies and harvest their organs, my response was visceral: I cried. When the second and third videos were released—the latest one containing footage of technicians picking through limbs and organs—my horror grew. Like most Americans opposed to abortion, I felt a revulsion in the story that seemed to require no explanation.
But it’s become clear that an explanation is, in fact, required. While some on the left have been deflecting the ethical issue by focusing on legal technicalities, a significant number are defending the practice of tissue sale (or donation) itself. “What’s so wrong,” their argument goes, “with using the body of a fetus who was going to be aborted anyway? Isn’t it better to use it for research and cures? Your real problem isn’t with tissue donation at all,” they conclude, “it’s with abortion.”
For the most part, that last charge is true. The heart of the matter, and the core of my objection, is abortion itself. I admit that pro-choice Americans who support using fetal body parts for research are adopting a logically consistent position. If unborn children have no right to life, they certainly have no right to bodily integrity that should trouble us. In fact (the reasoning consistently goes), this practice could actually be seen as praiseworthy and redemptive: a way for aborting women and doctors to give back by doing their part for science.
I understand this argument, but I couldn’t disagree more. A society that accepts the commodification of aborted babies’ body parts isn’t better or more humanitarian than one that merely allows abortion: it’s even more inhumane, more depraved.
I would go so far as to say that this is a pivotal moment for Americans grappling with abortion. The Planned Parenthood videos—and the surrounding debate over the use of fetal tissue—have revealed just how closely abortion parallels the last great moral evil enshrined in American law: slavery. And like that immoral institution, very few of us have clean hands. It’s easy to demonize those directly involved in the practice, but if we refuse to acknowledge the reality of what these videos show us about ourselves, we have no right to condemn our 19th century forebears.
So—setting aside the question of whether Planned Parenthood’s activities are legal—what exactly is wrong with using aborted children’s bodies for profitable research? I see three key problems.
Problem 1: It Deepens Our Hypocrisy about the Humanity of the Unborn
We’ve all heard the line that an unborn child isn’t a person. This is almost the first doctrine in the pro-choice catechism: what you call a “baby” is really just a blob of tissue, a “product of conception.” Abortion is no more morally problematic than clipping your fingernails or removing a cyst.
Except no one really believes this. Everyone, left and right, knows that a developing fetus is—at the very least—a future human. Our debate centers on the question of when the child attains full human rights. Is it at conception? Viability? Birth? Or even later: when she develops self-awareness?
A similar dilemma plagued our 18th and 19th century ancestors. Our early republic clearly denied legal personhood to African slaves, a fact to which Chief Justice Roger Taney appealed in his infamous Dred Scott opinion:
“The legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument…They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Note that Taney explicitly states his belief that blacks are excluded from the Declaration’s sweeping proclamations about “all men.” According to Taney’s interpretation of the Founders’ view, blacks aren’t human in the same way that whites are. Still, there was enough obvious personhood in African slaves that the Constitution recognized them as people for the purposes of determining a state’s congressional representation—at 3/5ths the value of a white person. To our shame, this deep hypocrisy about the humanity of African-Americans was embedded in our nation’s legal charter.
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. (Maybe three-fifths human?)
That’s why the undercover Planned Parenthood videos have been so jarring. In no uncertain terms, these doctors and technicians speak of harvesting hearts and livers, lungs and lower extremities. Recognizable human organs are being carefully extracted and their monetary value discussed. There is no plausibility in the argument that this is a donation of the woman’s tissue; it’s patently obvious that the mother isn’t donating her own liver, heart, lungs, or lower extremities. Clearly, like our ancestors before us, we’ve created a class of sub-humanity. These unborn children are human enough to be “donors” of recognizable human organs—but not human enough to enjoy legal personhood. We can kill them at will and use their bodies how we wish. We own them.
Problem 2: It Reveals the Inherent Violence and Cruelty of Abortion
I’m old enough to remember when abortion was widely spoken of as a regrettable necessity. (Remember the Clinton campaign’s line about making it “safe, legal, and rare?”) Today, abortion defenders have taken a different tack, portraying the practice not as a necessary evil but as a positive good. Abortion narratives that are unapologetic—even celebratory—are popping up everywhere. On the surface, fetal tissue donation fits that narrative perfectly: abortion becomes a way to advance medicine and help other people’s children thrive.
This change in messaging from “necessary evil” to “positive good” exactly mirrors the defense of slavery in the United States. Many early American slaveholders, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, spoke openly about the evil of slavery and the need to see it abolished—fretting only about how it should be done. “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear,” wrote Jefferson in 1820, “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” In Jefferson’s view (perhaps contrary to Taney’s later interpretation), slavery was a sin against God and nature—but it was necessary for self-preservation.
As opposition to slavery grew, however, Southerners circled the wagons, discarding nuance for pro-slavery propaganda. Whereas Jefferson had spoken honestly of a master’s “despotism” and a slave’s “degrading submission,” this editorial in an 1859 newspaper paints a far rosier portrait:
The intelligent, christian slave-holder at the South is the best friend of the negro. He does not regard his bonds-men as mere chattel property, but as human beings to whom he owes duties. . . . Here the honest black man is not only protected by the laws and public sentiment, but he is respected by the community as truly as if his skin were white. Here there are ties of genuine friendship and affection between whites and blacks, leading to an interchange of all the comities of life. The slave nurses his master in sickness, and sheds tears of genuine sorrow at his grave. When sick himself, or overtaken by the infirmity of age, he is kindly cared for, and when he dies the whites grieve, not for the loss of so much property, but for the death of a member of the family.
This laughably idyllic image found a credulous audience only because the worst abuses—the beatings, the rapes, the heartless breakup of families—happened in private. Slavery kept its ugliest side hidden, and many Americans were too far removed to know better. This is why firsthand accounts from former slaves like Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup became such an effective part of the abolitionist movement. Their work—together with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wildly successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin—cut through the fog of pro-slavery propaganda, revealing slavery’s inherent cruelty. It takes a great deal of rationalization to quiet the horror decent people feel when they hear a blow-by-blow description of a slave being whipped to death. Many couldn’t do it.
In the same way, Americans across the political spectrum felt a natural revulsion when they heard Dr. Deborah Nucatola describing how “we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” In the third undercover video, a former technician for StemExpress (someone clearly unfazed by the sight of blood in general) describes her first day on the job, when she fainted after being asked to identify fetal body parts. “Don’t worry, it still happens to a bunch of us,” her colleagues reassured her. “Some of us never get over it.”
Planned Parenthood’s defenders have been busy telling us how irrational we are to heed that sick feeling in our stomachs. “This is all perfectly normal,” they assure us. “If you were a medical professional, you’d know how standard and ordinary these procedures are.”
And that’s the terrible truth: they’re right. This is normal. It may even be entirely legal—and honestly, doesn’t that make things worse? Because now it’s not just Planned Parenthood who is to blame for this atrocity: it’s all of us. This is what we’ve allowed in our civilized society: tiny humans legally torn to pieces by the thousands, day in and day out. For years we’ve believed the happy propaganda that the abortionist “is the best friend” of women and children alike, saving them from lives of poverty and misery. (Of course, like slaves, the unborn are conveniently unable to speak for themselves.) Like our ancestors, we’ve been shielded from the reality of what happens behind closed doors. If we can see that mask torn away, quiet our horror at the ugly sight, and move on unchanged, we will have proven ourselves more morally calloused than Americans of the 1850s.
Problem 3: It Ingrains a Need for Abortion in Our Way of Life
Throughout the recent controversy, Planned Parenthood’s most compelling defense has been that fetal tissue research is beneficial for society: a way to find cures and save lives. (I’ll accept for the sake of argument that viable cures are indeed being found and that there’s no abortion-free way to achieve this—although these are far from settled questions.) While this is a sympathetic argument at first glance, in reality it may be the most sinister of all. This line of reasoning presumes that exploiting and commodifying “lower” humans is justified if it contributes to the welfare of “higher” humans. It threatens to make abortion an inextricable part of our everyday lives. And yes, we’ve been here before.
Historians generally acknowledge that American slavery was on the trajectory to die a natural death until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. This dramatically increased the profitability of the cotton crop, fueling a need for more slave labor. Southern planters were far from the only benefactors: slavery had suddenly become a key part of the entire nation’s economy. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes: “Understanding both how extraordinarily profitable cotton was and how interconnected and overlapping were the economies of the cotton plantation, the Northern banking industry, New England textile factories and a huge proportion of the economy of Great Britain helps us to understand why it was something of a miracle that slavery was finally abolished in this country at all.”
You see, contrary to rumor, early America wasn’t populated by monstrous men who enjoyed evil for its own sake. Like today, it housed ordinary humans beset with selfishness and greed. They saw slavery in terms of its benefits for society—and as long as you weren’t a slave, there were plenty of benefits. In fact, the benefits became so big, so essential to the way of life they had come to expect, that many Americans just couldn’t live without it—even those who acknowledged its evils. Far from merely tolerating slavery, they needed slavery.
If aborted fetal tissue is as beneficial and profitable as advertised, I fear the day when modern medical care—a huge part of our lives and economy—becomes so dependent on procuring babies’ bodies that we don’t just tolerate abortion: we need it. I can only imagine how vulnerable women might be subtly pressured to end their pregnancies for the sake of science, especially now that we value children more highly when they’re dead than when they’re alive. And since we’re okay with using the bodies of children who would be aborted anyway, why not ask certain women (perhaps with compensation) to carry their pregnancies further into the second trimester so we can procure better samples? How is this so much more unthinkable than what we’re doing already? Once we’ve accepted the selfish premise that unborn children are sub-human and may be sacrificed and sold for our benefit, there’s a long and gruesome way to go down that road.
Abortion advocates should ask themselves if they’re willing to be the pampered ruling class, enjoying health and wealth—treatments for diseases, lucrative medical jobs, sex without consequences—at the expense of a murdered underclass. There is a lot of talk today about privilege and equality, but I can think of no greater privilege in modern America than that of the born over the unborn, and no greater inequality than the legal right of the one to kill the other. Mother Teresa said it best: “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so you may live as you wish.” This doesn’t mean that those who favor abortion are monsters; they are all too human. But humans—even those of us who are good neighbors, loving parents, kind friends—are capable of great evil when we allow a moral blind spot to develop unchecked. It happened in early America, and it’s happening now. But it’s not too late to open our eyes and change.
As for pro-lifers, we have some soul-searching to do too. One of slavery apologists’ favorite tactics was pointing an accusatory finger at the hardships of free blacks in the North. Similarly, you can hardly discuss abortion today without someone saying, “You pro-lifers don’t really care about children. You won’t do a thing to help them once they’re born.” Both claims are exaggerated, but they do convey a truth: condemning the sins of others isn’t enough. We need to own our part of this national tragedy and be actively involved in relieving the suffering. There are many couples waiting to adopt a newborn (and many more I’ve seen offering to adopt in the wake of this story), but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this is the only way to help. There are pregnancy care centers that could use donations and volunteers, single moms who need help with bills or childcare, mentoring programs for fatherless kids, and local charities giving direct aid to those in poverty. It’s imperative for those of us who are pro-life to offer more than condemnation; we must also offer hope and help.
Reducing or ending abortion is never going to be a clean, painless process. There will be costs. But ending slavery was even more complex and costly—and entirely right. It’s tempting to judge ourselves based on the moral tests our ancestors faced, congratulating ourselves on how superior we are to them. But we have the benefit of hindsight in recognizing their evils. The true test of our vision is whether we will see the evils of our own time—and the true test of our goodness is whether we will make them right.