What Reactions to the Undercover Planned Parenthood Video Tell Us About Our Values

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David Daleiden, an anti-abortion activist, made headlines with the videos he released after secretly recording conversations at Planned Parenthood. His edited undercover footage allegedly reveals officials at the organization discussing the for-profit sale of fetal body parts and tissue from abortions. It seemed, according to the conversations, that fetal body parts originating in abortion carry a price tag on the market. Though there were intimations that Planned Parenthood was profiting from such sales, the unedited video appears to support Planned Parenthood’s claim that the money going to the organization covered only the organization’s expenses in providing the research material. In this column, I will analyze the factors that might account for people’s outrage, and I will then contrast the outrage in this area with a different area in which tissue and parts are bought and sold.

Incentive Effects

If one assumes the worst about the conversations and concludes that people working at Planned Parenthood and/or women undergoing abortion are receiving financial rewards for fetal parts and tissues, then the problem is easy to spot. Planned Parenthood is supposed to be offering women neutral counsel and medical support for their reproductive choices, whether those choices do or do not include abortion. If, however, Planned Parenthood stood to gain monetary compensation for providing abortion byproducts to the market, then that would compromise the organization’s neutrality. It might then be financially tempting to try to persuade pregnant patients to terminate their pregnancies (an effort that would make the organization “pro-abortion”—in favor of terminations over live births—rather than “pro-choice”—in favor of women exercising their autonomy to decide independently whether to terminate or take a pregnancy to term). Likewise, even assuming that a woman has decided to have an abortion, financial rewards for Planned Parenthood could lead the organization to pressure women to donate their fetuses, and the notion that anyone should be pressured to become a donor is ethically disturbing.

By the same token, if women themselves were somehow to receive financial compensation for donating fetal parts or tissue, then that could motivate women who are unsure about how to handle an unexpected pregnancy to have an abortion, especially if they are experiencing financial hardship. And likewise, a woman might feel pressured by the promise of financial compensation to donate the remains of her fetus.

Such incentive effects are troubling for several reasons. For a pro-choice person, they are troubling because they get in the way of women making an autonomous decision about what to do. Just as pro-choice individuals are horrified by forced abortions, pro-choice individuals are likewise deeply disturbed by financial incentives that could pressure women into making decisions that they otherwise would not have made about their personal reproductive futures. From a pro-choice perspective, a woman who wants to remain pregnant should no more be pressured to terminate than should a woman who wants to terminate be pressured to keep her baby. And money can have a very coercive effect on people.

From a pro-life perspective, the objection to such monetary incentives is obvious. It is bad enough, for a pro-life person (someone who regards all abortion as the moral equivalent of murder) that women have the option of “killing their babies” if they so choose. But it adds insult to injury for someone to be offering women (and/or their providers at Planned Parenthood) a monetary incentive to do what they might otherwise have decided, without such pressure, to forgo. If we think of the fetus as a born child (which is how a pro-life activist would think of the fetus), then we can all understand why a promise of financial reward for killing one’s baby and selling the baby’s organs to researchers would be monstrous. People who would never even consider doing violence to a child might, in the right (or, better, wrong) circumstances become willing to do so if enough money is on offer, especially if she is desperate for money. It is worth noting here that the money discussed in the videos is minimal, but, as an economist would say, it could influence decisions at the margin.

Beyond Incentives

If we put to one side the issue of incentivizing abortion (and organ donation), one could raise a distinct objection to the payment of money for fetal tissue or parts, regardless of who is receiving the money in question: commodification. Many people who would support a woman’s right to an abortion might nonetheless feel queasy about researchers paying for the fetus’s tissue and body parts as though there were no difference between a human fetus, on the one hand, and a market commodity like a car or a computer, on the other. People believe that there is something about a fetus that makes it wrong to put a price on its/his/her organs or tissue, even if the decision to terminate its/his/her life is accepted.

One way to think about this seemingly paradoxical view is to consider the (probably apocryphal) case of the woman who had a series of abortions in order to provide material for her art installation, discussed here. Though I would support her right to stop carrying any one of her pregnancies, I nonetheless found the idea of the art installation use a sign of profound disrespect for the remains. Similarly, while accepting the right to have an abortion, many would nonetheless find ethically offensive the choice of a woman to deliberately initiate a pregnancy in order to terminate and use the fetus’s organs to help an older sibling. Though this use of the fetus is surely more elevated than the “artist’s,” it still deliberately instrumentalizes the fetus’s body rather than simply terminating the unintended pregnancy. In other words, at least in my view, the right to terminate largely reflects an understanding of the woman’s bodily integrity interest in not being physically occupied against her will (rather than a right to do whatever one wants to a fetus). But intentionally creating the “occupier” in order to kill it/him/her to benefit someone else treats the fetus merely as a product to be deliberately created and then exploited, and that can be offensive to people who are pro-choice as well as to pro-life people.

Scholars and others have made similar arguments objecting to other sorts of commodification (that do not involve anyone begin killed), including paid surrogate motherhood arrangements and the payment of compensation to people who donate a kidney.

A Contrast in Commodification

In objecting to the commodification of fetuses, critics appear to be resting their objection on a sense that there is something sacred about a human being, even when that human being is not yet considered a “person” under the law and even when that human being is dead because of a constitutionally protected right to an abortion. Resisting commodification is a way of protecting the “human dignity” that attaches to humans even when they are no longer living (or were never even born). Laws that prohibit the “abuse” of a corpse evidence the same attitude of respect for human dignity.

In one sense, the fear of commodification may seem laudable. It is an effort to ensure that we all respect one another to such an extent that even when we are no longer truly part of the human community, everyone continues to treat us with dignity. We might even think of this as a prophylactic measure to ensure that when we are alive and can truly benefit from dignity, we will necessarily be treated with respect (since even the dead are).

One downside of commodification avoidance in the service of “human dignity” is that it operates both as an inclusionary and as an exclusionary principle. While taking offense at the sale of an organ from a dead fetus, for example, most of us simultaneously embrace the “freedom” to thoroughly commodify the living beings who populate our food production system. A chicken or a turkey is a live bird who has interests in comfort, in safety, in rich relationships formed with other birds, and in life itself. Yet because the bird is not human, we tend to accept and even celebrate (think of Thanksgiving) the absolute commodification of the bird. We can not only own the bird, but we can sell her to a slaughterhouse (for a chicken raised for her flesh, this happens when she is seven weeks old, still a baby), where she is brutally killed and then her parts are sold for a profit to consumers. All of this happens without consumers worrying that perhaps the violence that we sanction against animals “feels” okay because we permit ourselves to commodify them so absolutely.

In our forthcoming book, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights (Columbia U. Press 2016), Michael C. Dorf and I discuss some of the parallels and the differences between the philosophical commitments of ethical vegans and of pro-life advocates, respectively, as well as the challenges that the two movements confront and how each movement tends to handle such challenges. One of the differences that emerges is that opponents of the pro-life approach (i.e., pro-choice advocates) do not tend to argue that fetuses are things that women have the right to exploit but instead focus on the imposition that compelled pregnancy places on the woman involved. By contrast, those who oppose the ethical vegan movement do argue that domesticated animals—sentient beings who share our Earth—are essentially living property (“livestock”) whose purpose in life is for us to exploit them, which generally includes slaughtering them as well as subjecting them prior to death to physically intrusive and extremely painful interventions that maximize their value as commodities.

Even as we show respect for lifeless human remains, then, we show little to no respect to live cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and fishes, whose remains we tend to consume as “food” or clothing fiber. And we consume these remains even though there is no need to do so and even though doing so incentivizes practices that are astonishingly cruel, that are devastating to the global environment, and that are contributing to human starvation through the inefficiency of breeding and feeding an animal with the goal of slaughtering the animal and eating her and her reproductive secretions (instead of feeding the grains to humans directly).

I am not, of course, proposing that we stop treating humans with dignity. What I do suggest, however, is that we begin treating all sentient living beings with dignity. We could, in other words, embrace rights and entitlements (against violence and slaughter) for all sentient life, rather than excluding the billions of animals we harm by drawing a circle around “humans” and extending dignity and rights against torture and death to them alone. The most basic and simplest way to embody this expanded dignity is to forgo violence against animals by becoming vegan.

  • Roy Bryant

    There is a lie in the introduction, which discredits you and makes me want to avoid reading your hit piece! The films were not edited in a way that intentionally makes them misleading!

  • Kaelik

    Without taking up the significantly more complex task or arguing about animal rights in total: “whose remains we tend to consume as “food” or clothing fiber.” This doesn’t help your case at all. And by this, I mean the quotes around food. Why not put quotes around clothing fiber, I mean, it you live in such a delusional world that you dispute the fact that consumed animal flesh is food, why not dispute that things people wear are clothing.
    There are plenty of actual arguments to have, and you did mention most if not all of them in your article, but the quotes around food do nothing but make me question your ability to clearly see any issues.

  • Ted Harvatin

    This would be the more than the zero convincing that it is if you had written a similar analysis about the Mitt Romney heavily edited secretly recorded video.

  • Art LeBeau

    Typical lawyer writing — much too much verbiage (my opinion) to say all different facets of killing a baby (not a fetus to me). I am not a lawyer but I have been involved with law for over 55 years and have helped many people who cannot afford the legal costs. Lawyers call it practicing law without a license, I call it helping desperate people, and I have never been charged for that practice of help.
    Abortion is a sin per God’s Moral Law and that is the law we must obey, regardless of those who don’t want to honor the Bible. There will be a judgment day when we all die and that Judge will not be persuaded by all of our legalize.
    The attorneys should be going after all of these politicians who violate not only God’s Moral Law but those who make a “mocker” of our Constitution. Including those Judges on the US Supreme Court;
    Art LeBeau, Villa Ridge, MO (Christian, Conservative & Constitutionalist)