"#PPSellsBabyParts" was the gut-punching hashtag that quickly sprung up on Twitter in response to the sting videos in which a Planned Parenthood official casually discusses the donation -- or, some say, sale -- of organs from aborted fetuses.
So far, the reactions have been along predictable partisan lines. Nonetheless, the videos may well be a new turn in the abortion war, pushing many in the ambivalent center closer to the anti-abortion position.
Is there any way to strive toward a middle ground in this emotionally charged debate?
Pro-abortion-rights liberals and feminists have focused on attacking the messenger, pointing out the videos were made by anti-abortion advocates who engaged in deception (setting up a fake biomedical firm) to secretly record the footage. But it's a fair bet that no liberals would raise the same objections if, say, anti-racism activists had used deceptive tactics to expose racist practices in hiring or apartment rentals. There are widespread claims the videos are "selectively edited"; yet the full footage of the conversations was made available at the same time.
For conservatives and other anti-abortion rights folks, the videos confirm what they have long believed: the "abortion industry" is an evil enterprise that dismembers babies for profit. Republicans are planning to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding (which accounts for up to 40 percent of its budget if you count Medicaid payments). State investigations are underway in Wisconsin and Louisiana.
Even many pro-abortion- rights commentators agree that, whether the financial discussions in the videos are about illegal organ sales or legitimate recouping of donation expenses, the videos are disturbing. The casual tone in which the Planned Parenthood staffers talk about better ways to "crush" the fetus to obtain more intact hearts and livers is appalling to anyone with a conscience. Some say battle-hardened doctors can sound equally callous when discussing other procedures. But the fact is that other medical procedures are intended to restore health or save lives; abortion ends, at the very least, a potential human life. To dismiss our revulsion as a mere emotional reaction is to deaden our moral instinct.
This is not to say that those who are anti-abortion have no agenda beyond "life." Many are deeply hostile to sexual freedom and attached to a traditional view of motherhood as women's calling. Conservatives assail the presumed hypocrisy of pro-abortion advocates for whom the difference between an unborn baby and disposable tissue is the mother's intent. Yet those who want to ban abortion with an exception for pregnancies from non-consensual sex are inconsistent: No one would advocate killing a baby born from rape or incest.
The moral muddle of abortion may be inevitable given the complexities of the issue itself. Abortion, at least past early pregnancy, is a repugnant procedure; feminists who call for "abortion without apology" could alienate far more people than they convert. But for many of us, forcing a person to go through with pregnancy and childbirth against her will is also repugnant.
While there is no persuading the committed activists on either side, polls show that most Americans are open to compromise solutions. Limiting post-first-trimester abortions to true medical necessity could be one such measure. Another way to de-escalate the conflict would be to stop taxpayer funding for organizations that perform elective abortions.
For Planned Parenthood, which offers many other women's health services, this would mean either giving up taxpayer funds or stopping abortion services; low-cost abortions could be provided by new clinics relying on private donations.
A politician who could steer the way toward such a compromise would be a national hero.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.