I’ve seen the Planned Parenthood video. I’ve also watched some of the raw footage. So I know the more widely viewed version was selectively and misleadingly edited. I know it doesn’t say what its producers want you to think it does—namely, that Planned Parenthood “uses partial birth abortions to sell baby parts.”
I know Planned Parenthood does a lot more than provide access to abortion—97% more, to be precise. They offer many genuinely pro-life services to women—cancer screenings, disease prevention, access to contraception—services that some self-described “pro-lifers” seem decidedly uninterested in providing.
I know the video is being seized upon by those who care more about advancing an agenda than being “ambassadors for life,” as Matthew Paul Turner put it so well. We’ve known about fetal tissue collected from abortion for decades. So why are some just now getting worked up about it? Because they have a politically charged video they can exploit?
I also know that many of the vaccines I received as a child—and many of the vaccines my children and yours receive—were made in cells that were cultured from fetal tissue obtained through abortion. And I’m not going to stop giving these vaccines to my children.
I know all this, and yet the video still troubles me.
If you believe there’s nothing wrong with abortion, and yet the sight of someone casually discussing the particulars over a glass of wine bothers you too, then maybe it’s worth asking why.
Perhaps, as one person suggested, it’s simply because we find “a lot of surgical and medical procedures… icky.”
Maybe that’s all it is.
I would certainly be grossed out by the sight of an open-heart surgery or an autopsy. But my response to the Planned Parenthood video was something different. It wasn’t the “ick factor” that troubled me. It wasn’t even the knowledge that human tissue is being collected for scientific research. (As others have pointed out, we do this all the time with organ donors—the difference being, there’s usually a distinction between the act that terminates life and the collection of tissue.)
It’s what precedes the collection of tissue that troubles me—the targeted “crushing.” It was the thought of something like this happening to my son around the time we were having an ultrasound to discover his biological sex.
I know personhood is not exactly synonymous with biological life. I know some pro-lifers engage in a misleading and misguided attempt to conflate the two—for reasons that have more to do with politics than principle.
I know that personhood, unlike biological life, is an ethical and moral concept—one that’s a lot more difficult to pin down, one around which there’s no consensus and, let’s face it, a lot of speculation.
I’m not sure we should attribute personhood to a zygote. But neither do I think we should wait until birth, as if personhood is something the baby grabs hold of on their way down the birth canal. The answer is probably somewhere in between—and a heck of a lot more mysterious.
Yet regardless of how we view personhood and its origins—regardless of whether we ground our concept of personhood in a religious presupposition like the “image of God” (as I do) or in something else—we all agree that personhood matters. People have value. Life is something to be cherished, nurtured, and protected.
And hopefully, we still agree that people have value regardless of their ability to “contribute,” regardless of the extent to which they live up to society’s definition of what it means to be a “healthy, normal” person.
Those of us labeled “progressive” speak out against racism, homophobia, and the oppression of the poor precisely because we believe that personhood matters. Those who are conservative resist what they perceive to be an intrusive government because they believe in the individual liberty of each person.
Personhood matters. Yet none of us really know when or how it begins.
At what point do we ascribe the intangible value of personhood to a member of society? Can it be taken away? If so, by whom and under what authority?
Most of all, if personhood is so intangible yet important, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution when it comes to anything that might harm or destroy it?
The reason I want churches to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is not because I’m 100% convinced I’m right in my interpretation of the Scriptures. I could be wrong on this or any number of issues. It’s because if I’m going to err, I’d rather err on the side that I believe to be more loving, more compassionate, more life-affirming.
The same is true for abortion. I could be wrong about when life begins, or when the threshold from “biological life” to “personhood” is crossed. The fact is, I have no idea. But I would rather err on the side that protects, nurtures, and celebrates life.
Of course, some will point out—and rightly so—that it’s not always that simple to choose which path is the most “life-affirming.” It’s not that simple when the life or health of the mother is at stake. It’s not that simple when a women is raped and becomes pregnant by her attacker.
The fact that some of these scenarios might be relatively rare does not give us the right to ignore them. To do so is demeaning to the personhood of the very real women affected by them. Besides, some of these scenarios—namely, pregnancy due to rape—might not be as rare as you think.
Like Matthew Paul Turner said, if my wife were in any of these situations, “I’d want her to have the power to make a choice.” And I’d want it to be a doctor, not a legislator, helping her make that choice.
But if we have reached a point where we can discuss the extraction of fetal body parts and remain untroubled, perhaps we don’t value life as much as we should.
I do not think there’s an easy answer for each scenario that leads a woman to have an abortion. I will not presume to lecture or pretend I know better than those who’ve had to make this immensely difficult choice. And I will not let the pro-life movement off the hook for failing to uphold a truly consistent ethic of life beyond the womb.
But I cannot be silent and pretend that a fetus has no value—or that we are the life-affirming culture we ought to be.