Some matters in this world are complicated: some deserve careful deliberation, time, and the opportunity to work through our emotions before coming to a reasonable judgment of things. I have long been an advocate of this principle and wary critic of the impassioned internet-activism that motivates many people online. Such movements have a distorting effect, they don’t allow for more subtle responses, they often backlash when the facts are wrong, and so on. I know every reason to avoid speaking in the midst of social media uproars, and have made nearly all of them myself at one point or another.
But some things are simple. Some moments grip us with such a clarity and power that we have no choice but to respond. When I saw the video of the McKinney police officer pushing the face of a 15 year old black girl into the ground, any question about the justice or injustice of the situation fell to the ground. The appropriate response to the racist Charleston shooting was to repeat imprecatory and lament Psalms, and to allow our country the full vent of its just infuriation to well up into the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s grounds. It is the better part of wisdom to discern the moments that have complications that might temper our outrage and those in which the evil appears unmasked and naked, well-intentioned and ‘reasonable.’
Yesterday was one such day. As I sat in a Starbucks watching the video of a Planned Parenthood executive casually discuss the transfer and sale of “fetal tissue” extracted in abortions, Russell Moore’s question haunted me: “If this does not shock the conscience, what will?” The video should disturb us to our very core, and animate us to lament and work to bring an end to the practice that I have in my most sober, dispassionate moments described as the most pressing human rights abuse of our day and the American genocide.
There is no “but” here, no extenuating factors that make the conversation any more palatable to me. Yes, I have read the transcript in full. Yes, the Planned Parenthood executive denies repeatedly any attempt to profit off the sale of body parts. Yes, this has been going on a long time, and may be legal (or may not be). As the transcript notes, the “buyer” suggests that “we’re not selling tissue, we’re selling the possibility of what research can offer.” To which the Planned Parenthood executive responds, “I think we would all agree with you. That’s just not the perception, sadly, for everybody.”
Only my outrage stems just from such qualifications. I had a vague awareness that the grave moral evil is a “systemic” problem within American culture, but had never seen quite how clearly until yesterday how extensive that system of exchange extends. Many evangelicals learned the language of “systemic injustice” in response to the tragedy of Ferguson, because it explains a real phenomenon: a repeated pattern of incidents that share similar features in a wide number of contexts.
But here we have a much more defined and concrete system of exchanges in which the main “product” are human bodies—bodies whose ‘consent’ is given not by themselves, but by their mothers. Planned Parenthood may not make a single dime off of participating in such a system. But they are still in a “market” where the other people and institutions who do benefit from receiving the ‘fetal tissue’ doubtlessly reciprocally support Planned Parenthood in other ways, if only through donation and political support. The practice of treating infant bodies as products in a transaction should itself shock us, regardless of who profits from it.
Now, I find the abortion itself to be morally wrong. But the video is so galling because it makes so obvious the kind of contorted redescriptions of human life that makes the practice possible. Abortion requires not only the dismemberment of the human body in fact, but in our speech as well:
“So then you’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, 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. And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex, because when it’s vertex presentation, you never have enough dilation at the beginning of the case, unless you have real, huge amount of dilation to deliver an intact calvarium. So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end.”
We cannot allow ourselves to see the baby as a whole, integrated, living organism. But an ‘intact calvarium’ is in more common parlance a head, and if someone crushes a part of my body they crush me.
The ‘scientific’ or ‘clinical’ language obscures as much as it reveals: it cannot abide the possibility that what we are discussing are living beings who are direct descendants of us. Even if such beings are not yet persons, they are at the time as we once were, and denying them their humanity means we deny our own and commit grave evils as a result. Before the “extraction procedure” ever comes to be—a neutralizing neologism if ever there was then—there are the fragmentary descriptions that inure us to the reality.
I have quoted it before, but Oliver O’Donovan has made this point best:
“I do not wish to complain that this ‘human subject’ is really all the time a person, because I think…that both such a claim and its denial are in principle undemonstrable. It is enough to point out that the ambiguity of the status of the embryo research subject is precisely what is intended. It is what the task of self-transcendence needs, that it should be ourselves and yet not ourselves. If we should wish to charge our own generation with crimes against humanity because of the practice of this experimental research, I would suggest that the crime should not be the old-fashioned crime of killing babies, but the new and subtle crime of making babies to be ambiguously human, of presenting to us members of our own species who are doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love. The practice of producing embryos by IVF with the intention of exploiting their special status for use in research is the clearest possible demonstration of the principle that when we start making human beings we necessarily stop loving them; that that which is made rather than begotten becomes something that we have at our disposal, not someone with whom we can engage in brotherly fellowship.”
O’Donovan’s point is a brutally, horribly relevant one. It is one thing to read it from the comfort of one’s own home and nod along, tsk tsking about the principalities and powers of our age. But it is quite another to see that spirit so animatedly displayed in the service of a practice that is so gravely, morally wrong.
Dr. Deborah Nucatola is not a comic book villain. I doubt she is malicious, just as I doubt that the people profiting off the transfer of ‘fetal tissue’ are malicious. She has the kind of consequentialist justification—“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make the most people happy”—that many of us have swallowed in other realms of life, even if we do not realize it. She deserves the compassion and love that the victims of Charleston’s shooting eventually demonstrated toward their shooter. She is deeply deceived about the good she is doing, and so needs our prayer.
But we should also work to end the systemic pressures which keep the moral evil of abortion a meaningful possibility in the American culture, the same way over the past year many people have become more aware of how the evils of racism continue to structure our society. I myself have not written on those matters for one reason: I am not qualified to, not having done the reading, listening, or living that I think is required to not merely speak about such matters of grave importance, but to speak responsibly and well. History and my children may judge me harshly for my general silence, and they would be right to do so.
But the ‘marginalized’, the ‘vulnerable’, the ‘voiceless’: where else but the womb are such descriptors more readily or easily applied? The womb is a microcosm for the world: the conditions on which we welcome the unborn will determine the atmosphere by which we welcome anyone else into our lives. Do they look like us? Do they allow us the status we wish for ourselves? Do they drain our resources and inhibit our desires for our own life? Do they make us uncomfortable? Do they demand the sacrifice of our own bodies for their welfare and well-being? For many women who are in danger of seeking an abortion, pregnancy feels like the end of their dreams, their hopes, and their futures. For all women, it requires a level of sacrifice and care which I, as a male, will never know and can never imagine. But so much moreso the wrong that obscures their gift to the world by reducing the humans bear to “fetal tissue.” And so much moreso our need not to spurn such women, but to welcome, support, and extend our care and concern to them. They are victims of the spirit of our age, if anyone is, and no amount of working for the ‘greater good’ can meaningfully overcome the unsettled bifurcation such a trauma must induce.
It is for that reason, then, that in this case our outrage should be directed toward the research regime that depends upon dehumanizing members of our own species in order to treat them as research products, the funding sources for Planned Parenthood, and the regulatory regime that make these evils possible. Yes, to stop such a program we would have to say no to the “possibility of what research can offer,” or at least research that uses the tissue from those who cannot consent to the process. But limits are the mother of invention, and while denying scientists access to fetal tissue may slow down their work, our country’s complicity in torture should have made us by now well aware of the kinds of moral wrongs that arise under the banner of urgency and necessity. Those are our laws that have enabled this practice: they represent us as a people. And as Ben Domenech has put it, “We must answer the obvious questions. What type of nation does this? Are we that type of nation? And: Do we want to be?”