Why is this video so explosive? Because abortion has become (it wasn’t always this way) an issue that falls along American political partisan lines. Some people are defensive about it but it seems most Democrats with power are (probably politically wisely) just keeping quiet until it recedes from the headlines.
A number of “push back” pieces want to clarify some things:
- Up until this point there is no evidence of illegal activity. Harvested abortion remains can legally be used for scientific research (I assume with the consent of the woman/mother/donor) and transportation and processing costs recouped.
- This is hidden camera “gotcha” journalism. Both sides enjoy these snarky treats. See Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
None of the fact checkers dispute what the video shows. A Planned Parenthood employee chatting casually about abortion remains and the value of these remains for companies that provide this material for science.
So what is getting under everyone’s skin about this video?
It is a blow to our pride as guardians of the fraying myth of the sanctity of human life and the divide in the culture war.
Imagine a Disrespectful Mortician
As a pastor I get my share of time with morticians and funeral directors. Why are they all the same?
It is a cultural liturgy of solemnity and respect. They do all they can to communicate professionalism and respect. Why? Because in all of our minds when we turn over the body of a recently deceased loved one we wish for that body to be respected, honored and cared for. At funerals I usually stand next to that body as loved ones parade past it, kiss it, leave a token for it, and weep. This is how we show honor, respect and love. What if I were to say “that’s just tissue”?
Let’s imagine a piece of “gotcha” journalism where someone takes an undertaker out to a nice lunch and in the false atmosphere of informality with the hidden camera rolling gets the undertaker to talks about the “stiffs” that they keep in the back room. Let’s imagine this is an especially bad undertaker where they pose bodies for funny, mocking pictures, laugh at the ugly, wrinkled, body parts, or do “sick” things to the corpses.
This is of course the makings of comedy shtick, but if it were for real, loved ones would not be amused.
Would we imagine this video hit job does the community a service by exposing someone breaking the undertaker’s code? I don’t know if there are laws about such things but I would imagine if there are not then BOTH sides after such a scandal would line up to pass them.
Just check out these two stories easily googled about a woman who is horrified at the undertaker not putting her veteran father’s remains in a casket for viewing. You can in the local news video see the corpse placed unceremoniously on a table.
Or what about this story where a woman opens up the box with her son’s remains only to discover a Walmart grocery bag. Would we want these people to “chill out” about these offenses? Now privately we might think “well that’s not really big deal…” but that’s not the social script. Why are mass graves after a genocide or a disaster stock footage of great tragedy?
So why is this woman’s casual conversation over lunch about the harvesting of fetal tissue for scientific purposes so incendiary? Isn’t pretending we just don’t get the outrage part of the politically scripted drama?
Both side of the aisle like to traffic outrage over offenses against human dignity. Let’s consider the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Here the offenders took their own pictures, no gotcha journalism was required. It was the political left that had a fit over this one. Why? The offenders were charged and convicted by military justice for what they did.
As a society we declare that even war criminals are people and regardless of their guilt or innocence are entitled to respect and humane treatment. We say this because we wish to tell ourselves, and each other, that we are “civilized” and this is what that means.
We like to publicly imagine we don’t respect the leaking of the Saddam’s execution but we watch it anyway, maybe even with enjoyment. We do enjoy Saddam in a spider hole or Bin Laden getting ambushed in his bedroom with his unmade bed. Our narrative of “worth” has plenty of nuance.
Why It’s Impossible To Talk About Abortion without Comment
CS Lewis made a vital observation when he was reflecting on obscenity in literature.
There have been very few societies, though there have been some, in which it was considered shameful to make a drawing of the naked human body: a detailed, unexpurgated drawing which omits nothing that the eye can see. On the other hand, there have been very few societies in which it would have been permissible to give an equally detailed description of the same subject in words. What is the cause of this seemingly arbitrary discrimination?
Before attempting to answer that question, let us note that the mere existence of the discrimination disposes of one widely accepted error. It proves that the objection to much that is called “obscenity” in literature is not exclusively moral. If it were, if the objectors were concerned merely to forbid what is likely to inflame appetite, the depicted nude should be as widely prohibited as the described nude.
Lewis, C. S. (1987-03-25). Present Concerns (Kindle Locations 964-970). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Sit down and draw your nude. When you have finished it, take your pen and attempt the written description. Before you have finished you will be faced with a problem which simply did not exist while you were working at the picture. When you come to those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will have to make a choice of vocabulary. And you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find any ordinary, neutral word, comparable to “hand” or “nose”. And this is going to be very troublesome. Whichever of the four words you choose is going to give a particular tone to your composition: willy-nilly you must produce baby-talk, or Wardour Street, or coarseness, or technical jargon. And each of these will force you to imply a particular attitude (which is not what you intended to imply) towards your material. The words will force you to write as if you thought it either childish, or quaint, or contemptible, or of purely scientific interest. In fact, mere description is impossible. Language forces you to an implicit comment. In the drawing you did not need to comment: you left the lines to speak for themselves. I am talking, of course, about mere draughtsmanship at its simplest level. A completed work by a real artist will certainly contain a comment about something. The point is that, when we use words instead of lines, there is really nothing that corresponds to mere draughtsmanship. The pen always does both less and more than the pencil.
Lewis, C. S. (1987-03-25). Present Concerns (Kindle Locations 974-985). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
This is true of sex, and it is true of abortion. The abortion battle is all about language. The “pro-choice” side rushes to the language of anatomy and medicine because all other forms of language and imagery undermine their cause. The split couldn’t be more obvious. This chart showing “your baby’s fetal development” is clearly geared towards women who want to be mothers.
Pro-choice attempts to find shelter in the clinical, but the comment beneath the clinical says “I don’t care. I’m distant, only concerned with material outcomes.” That material outcome is of course, garbage, decay, death, or in this case “recycling”. Soylent Green anyone?
“Products of Conception” or “My Dead Baby”
Here is out an ABC New story begins:
Two years ago, Cecelia McGregor had a miscarriage. She was 10 weeks into her pregnancy.
But today the 29-year-old nurse and mother of two from Minooka, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, says she is still fighting to obtain what’s left of the remains of the baby she named Angelica Rose from the hospital where she had a procedure to remove the dead tissue that remained in her womb after she miscarried.
She says she has been struggling with Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center, in Joliet, Ill., to get what she calls the “products of conception,” some of which she thinks the institution still may possess, so the remains could have a proper burial.The hospital refuses to comment, citing patient confidentiality
McGregor is part of a small but growing movement of parents and healthcare professionals nationwide who are demanding hospitals give parents the option of burying or cremating remains left from a miscarriage. McGregor says she had asked nurses and laboratory technicians about what would happen to the tissue after her procedure, but could not get any information.
While most states, like Illinois, only give parents choice in the disposition of the remains after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a few states, such as Massachusetts, require hospitals to tell parents they can control the burial or cremation of remains after any stage of a pregnancy loss. Funeral homes handle the arrangements. Parents in the Bay State also can ask the hospital to handle the remains, which may or may not bury or cremate the remains.
But in the majority of states, contents of the womb prior to 20 weeks of gestation would be handled like medical waste. Hospitals incinerate the material as they would tumors or gallstones.
So how do you distinguish what Cecelia McGregor regards as “her baby” from what Dr. Nucatola is chatting about as she noshes on lunch?
Who goes to a woman who just miscarried a wanted child and suggests that what she lost has the value of a gall stone?
Is the value found in the material or in the mind of the perceiver? Isn’t this the great question of our day? Do THINGS matter in themselves even if we care not for them. Isn’t this the foundation of the idea of the “sacred”?
The great wave over society right now says “I decide what’s real”. What if I have no power and no one with power or status decides that I don’t have worth? “What am I then? Isn’t this what politics is for” we imagine? The state and the economy have replaced God as the arbiter of value.
Having it Both Ways
So what are we talking about here? What makes the difference whether the “material” or “baby” should be treated like a gall stone or something that qualifies for human burial? There are two parties:
- someone with status who cares to confer status to the “material” as “Human”
- the legal system which is increasingly looked to to define and confer “status” upon individuals based on their legal treatment. “Our Weddings, Our Worth”
Who is to tell Ms McGregor that the material extracted from her womb is not her baby?
Can you feel the conflicts of our multi-faceted conversation about status, identity, rights and regard running all different ways across the political partisan divide?
As Lewis said, you can’t talk about this stuff without comment. Once you talk or write you will be commenting. You will choose. The lunching doctor spoke.
Who Decides Who is a Human Being and what Status they should be Afforded?
Nicholas Kristof did a powerful piece on the killings going on at the Nuba Mountains. He entitled it “The Worst Atrocity You’ve Never Heard Of” It’s been going on for 4 years. The implicit message is that “people count regardless of how visible their lives are to people of status.”
That’s a lovely sentiment, and one that the West wants to take pride in, to distinguish ourselves from the ISIS butchers or the killers in Sudan. Many around the world are less impressed with our credentials.
The present movement in the West is the attempt to halo our self-assertion and ours self-construction. The argument for aborting “fetal material” is that has no status, only the status, the well-being and the life choices of the “host” matter. The status is determined by the choice of the one in power. This is an ugly and grim reality as we head into a world where increasingly the dilemmas will involve the costs.
Global Climate Change Plus Human Over-Population Equals…
If we buy the future narrative of global climate change and over-populations we are indeed facing questions that will test our hearts. The unborn are the most easily disposed of. How lovely when their material can be passed along for the benefit of science!
In this conversation the focus becomes the challenge of the 21st century being that of excess humans. I see this in my community. We have some in our society who are insanely busy with jobs, caring for children, doing this and that. Then we have the old, the disabled, the young the unemployable. It is not hard to believe that as machine intelligence gets better the employable haves and have nots will continue to differentiate. There are two classes of people: those whose days are filled by others, and those who struggle to fill their own days. The difference is status.
Do we not see how the immigration comes into this? We demand that Europe take in the boat people coming over from Libya but in America we have conflicted feelings about immigration ourselves. It is the anxiety of the American left, not the right, that we are killing this planet and what do we imagine we will be willing to do with the billions of poor of the undeveloped world as they are the first ones to feel the heat. We imagine the cost of this is affordable, meaning it will make little appreciable impact in my lifestyle. I have my doubts. Our track record on the environment shows that we tend to do what is in our own economic self interest. Abortion is pretty much the same thing, but the politics are reversed.
Our Conversations about “Human Dignity” are Highly Selective
What is exposed is the way of the world as it has always been. Those with status and power, those at the center of their tribe reflecting the center of their interests decide who is “people” and who isn’t. Almost every ancient tribe called themselves “the people” and everyone else something else.
The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human. In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does the word Nuer mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of miles from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 3044-3045). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Scroll through the list of what Native Americans called themselves. How many tribes in their own language simply called themselves “the people”. Greeks and barbarians. Jews and Gentiles. It’s all the same.
The oldest story of humanity is that we are creatures who are good at the math of self-interest. We truly wish to aspire to the noble idea of “sanctity” but we shy away from the price tag. We long to have our worth respected and preserved but we will value the worth of another on a case by case basis depending in what it will cost us.
If the child is wanted the womb is sacred space and the contents holy, worth of costly burial and public regard. We call that material “my child”.
If the carrier deems the material inconvenient or unwanted it should be treated like a tumor or a gall stone, but I suppose is someone else finds some value in it, by all means go ahead.
What we most fear is that we, will one day become that gall stone or that tumor and so we will ally with others who demand that their son’s ashes not be deposited in a Walmart bag. Gucci I suppose would be fine. We are scrapping for whatever shred of status we can muster and that status will be evaluated by the response that others of status reflect back to us. There is nothing new under the sun.
The foundation of the Christian ideal of human worth is that God sees all and God regards all and claims all as image bearers. Once there is no longer a god to give regard and status all that is left is us and at that point human value is simply a function of power and economics, or to say it in another way, “choice” for those who have options which means those with power. We know ourselves well enough and that if we leave it up to “others”, those we don’t know, those we don’t trust to do “the choosing”, then we will be lost.