' Back to first things - Paul Greenberg

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Back to first things

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 11, 2015

   Back to first things

For just a moment that striking video of a senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood casually discussing the price of fetal body parts eclipsed everything else about the debate over abortion in this country. Not because most of us don't know what goes on in abortion mills, but because the video brought it home.

There she was, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, sipping red wine and nibbling on a salad as she explained what she did every day in the lab--and how the results were sold, piece by piece. She could have been a butcher discussing how to select a prime cut and what price it would bring on today's market. No wonder the video set off a visceral reaction across the country.

"I'm gonna basically crush below," she was saying, "I'm gonna crush above, and I'm gonna see if I can get it all intact." Including the "calvarium -- the head is basically the biggest part."

Then she went on to talk prices, unaware that she was being secretly recorded by the pro-life group that would then distribute the video far and wide, much to Planned Parenthood's consternation. The same undercover investigators/provocateurs would soon produce a couple of other videos about how Planned Parenthood operates, fueling the controversy.

What goes on in Planned Parenthood's labs and business offices may be legal, but that doesn't make it right -- or any more appetizing. There is a wisdom in repugnance that no amount of legalese can refute. There is something in the mind -- and gut -- that shrinks back instinctively at the way Planned Parenthood does science. And business. Whatever legal justifications it offers.

There was a time when human slavery, too, was legal in this country. But not till a best-seller like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appeared, and anti-slavery agitators like Frederick Douglass took to the hustings, did the country fully awaken to the horrors of what was then called the Peculiar Institution. And recognize the great evil this country had tolerated, even enshrined in law, since its earliest years.

Despite the nationwide outcry inspired by these videos, the root of the evil they depict in gruesome detail is still widely accepted, and in some quarters even lauded: abortion itself, not just the way groups like Planned Parenthood practice it.

Those of us who have long opposed abortion (except perhaps in the clearest, life-threatening cases) stand accused of using these videos to inflame public opinion against it. It's an accusation to which I plead guilty. Because anything that will illustrate the evil at the root of abortion -- its callous disregard for human life -- should be welcomed, and used to awaken the conscience of ever more Americans.

There is little chance of reversing Roe v. Wade, abortion's magna carta, with one sweeping judicial ruling any time soon. By now it's embedded in American law like some inoperable cancer.

But there are many incremental steps that can be taken to chip away at abortion's legal basis, no matter how long it takes to reduce it to a relic of a barbarous past. Consider all the new state laws, like Arkansas', that limit abortions. Just as state after state in the North found ways around the Fugitive Slave Act that demanded the return of escaped slaves -- like Frederick Douglass -- who had found their way to freedom.

On the federal level, the latest proposal to limit abortion is styled the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy, when the unborn can feel pain. And may even be saved if born prematurely.

But abortion needs to be attacked at its very root, not just limited because it leads to a shocking market in fetal body parts. It is wrong in principle, not just practice. The root of this evil lies not in one repellent technique or the other, but in its very essence.

Abraham Lincoln once said that if slavery isn't wrong, nothing is. Today, if abortion isn't wrong, nothing is. Let's say so. Let's get back to first principles, and not argue about just the means, however dramatic, that groups like Planned Parenthood find to violate them.

Leon Kass, the physician and moralist, chaired a presidential commission on bioethics back in the early 2000s. He used to talk about a "wisdom of repugnance" that is "beyond reason's power fully to articulate it." Maybe, but that evil can be depicted, as in these videos, and even set off a welcome wave of national revulsion. And about time.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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