Ross Douthat, in one of his best columns ever, considers what the Planned Parenthood videos tell us about the kind of people we are. He opens by talking about an anecdote from a 1976 essay by a physician, Richard Selzer, who wrote of stumbling upon body parts from aborted babies on the street. There had been an accident with a disposal truck, the kind of thing that almost never happens. But it did happen, and Selzer writes about not being able to un-see what he had seen — and not being able to avoid the judgment the sight of that horror forced him to make about the society of which he was a part. More, from Douthat, about the videos of the Planned Parenthood doctors casually chatting about dismembering unborn human beings in such a way as to make their body parts more valuable on the flesh market:
It’s a very specific disgust, informed by reason and experience — the reasoning that notes that it’s precisely a fetus’s humanity that makes its organs valuable, and the experience of recognizing one’s own children, on the ultrasound monitor and after, as something more than just “products of conception” or tissue for the knife.
That’s why Planned Parenthood’s apologists have fallen back on complaints about “deceptive editing” (though full videos were released in both cases), or else simply asked people to look away. And it’s why many of my colleagues in the press seem uncomfortable reporting on the actual content of the videos.
Because dwelling on that content gets you uncomfortably close to Selzer’s tipping point — that moment when you start pondering the possibility that an institution at the heart of respectable liberal society is dedicated to a practice that deserves to be called barbarism.
That’s a hard thing to accept. It’s part of why so many people hover in the conflicted borderlands of the pro-choice side. They don’t like abortion, they think its critics have a point … but to actively join our side would require passing too comprehensive a judgment on their coalition, their country, their friends, their very selves.
This reluctance is a human universal. It’s why white Southerners long preferred Lost Cause mythology to slaveholding realities. It’s why patriotic Americans rarely want to dwell too long on My Lai or Manzanar or Nagasaki. It’s why, like many conservatives, I was loath to engage with the reality of torture in Bush-era interrogation programs.
But the reluctance to look closely doesn’t change the truth of what there is to see. Those were dead human beings on Richard Selzer’s street 40 years ago, and these are dead human beings being discussed on video today: Human beings that the nice, idealistic medical personnel at Planned Parenthood have spent their careers crushing, evacuating, and carving up for parts.
One small thing that makes this column so effective is Douthat’s concession that the need to look away to preserve our innocence, and to preserve our friendships, our convictions, our allies, is all too human, and caught him up as well. There is not one of us — not one — who has never been guilty of this. We see it all the time, across political, religious, and racial boundaries. The logic goes like this:
1. [Our side] is accused of doing/supporting/enabling this horrible thing.
2. We are not the kind of people who would do/support/enable that sort of thing.
3. Therefore we are not guilty.
Or it goes like this:
1. Our side is accused, etc.
2. But the people making the accusation are bad.
3. If they are right, bad people win.
4. Therefore, they are wrong.
Or like this:
1. Our side is accused, etc.
2. If the accusers are right, then we will have to stop doing what we’re doing.
3. The cost of that would be too high.
4. Therefore, the accusers are wrong.
I did this in the march up to the Iraq War. I don’t recall precisely, but chances are I was slow because of this to recognize the moral horror of the torture regime the US imposed on its captives. A whole lot of people were very, very slow to recognize the moral horror of the clerical sex abuse scandal because of some version of this dynamic. There are many on the left who will not recognize inconvenient truths about their own sacred cows; the cows are different on the right, but no less sacred. The list is endless.
The issue in this case, though, is the dismemberment of human beings, and the profits made by flesh brokers. The issue here is the rationalizations these killers and their apologists are deploying to mask the horror of their deeds. This is what our country permits. We abstract our consciences into numbness.
Wendell Berry once wrote, “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.” He was talking about environmental abuse, but the principle applies widely.