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Don't let nitpicking cloud greater truths in Planned Parenthood videos

A Planned Parenthood location is seen on August

A Planned Parenthood location is seen on August 5, 2015 in New York City. Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Just about everyone agrees that GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina made an extremely strong showing in last week's debate on CNN. But there has been intense disagreement on one of her statements -- namely, her description of the content of the recent videos seeking to expose wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.

Abortion rights supporters and many liberal pundits say that Fiorina's claims were highly misleading, if not made up. Abortion opponents and many conservatives respond that one of the videos does show precisely what Fiorina described. These polemics, in which each side sincerely asserts that the other is in denial, tells us a great deal about political biases and perception of facts.

What Fiorina said, in her challenge to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to watch the Planned Parenthood videos, was this: "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

The scene that right-to-life commentators and activists say matches this harrowing description is in the seventh of the 10 videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, a group that opposes abortion, since July. The 10-minute clip shows Holly O'Donnell, a former biomedical research company worker who used to collect fetal organs at a Planned Parenthood center, talking about the things she allegedly witnessed -- including fully formed aborted fetuses having their faces cut open to extract brain tissue.

While she describes this, the video cuts to footage of a fetus lying on a table; after a few moments, its leg moves. That footage is not part of the hidden-camera recordings by the Center for Medical Progress, and apparently was not shot inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

The visual is unquestionably disturbing -- especially combined with O'Donnell's narration. Yet Fiorina's description not only overstates the case ("legs kicking" implies something more active than a single movement, which could be a postmortem convulsion after the heart has stopped beating), but also wrongly implies that the video shows a Planned Parenthood worker talking about keeping that particular fetus alive to harvest its brain. That is simply not the case.

Yet an editorial in The Federalist, a conservative website, argues Fiorina gave a basically correct summary of what was on-screen: While the fetus was not the same one whose brain O'Donnell says she saw being harvested, it was a fetus of about the same age, and using that image to illustrate her narration was appropriate.

Of course, that's the sort of argument that conservatives deride as "fake, but accurate" when liberals defend the basic veracity of stories -- related to sexism or to racial injustice, for example -- that are being questioned on factual grounds.

To conservatives, questioning the specifics of the Planned Parenthood videos, or of Fiorina's description, looks like callous nitpicking in the face of gruesome evidence of a societally condoned atrocity. Many liberals and leftists undoubtedly feel the same way when critics raise questions about the precise facts of the police shooting of a black teenager.

Regarding Fiorina's statement, the truth lies somewhere between liberal claims that it was pure fiction and conservative claims that it was pure fact. She misstated what the video shows -- possibly as a sincere mistake -- but did not make it up from whole cloth.

The Planned Parenthood videos make troubling claims about late-term abortions and organ harvesting; these allegations should be investigated. But the discussion, however passionate, should stay factual. And both sides should remember that sometimes, "factual" is in the eye of the beholder.