How the Planned Parenthood controversy affects the abortion debate

Is the ongoing dispute over the Planned Parenthood videos contributing to a misleading view of abortion?

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
A sign at a Planned Parenthood clinic is pictured in Oklahoma City on July 24, 2015.

The drama between Planned Parenthood and the activist group that seeks to discredit it may soon play out in court.

The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) could face a host of legal problems from states with laws around the surreptitious recording of conversations, BuzzFeed News reports. The CMP first made headlines in July after it released secretly-recorded footage of employees of Planned Parenthood and StemExpress, a biomedical tissue firm, casually discussing the costs of transferring fetal tissue to a (fake) third party.

The upcoming court battles are the latest development in the saga, which has in the last eight weeks spawned legal, ethical, and political debates over the practice of undercover investigations, the sale and donation of fetal tissue for research, and the federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Above all, the issue has reignited the nationwide debate over abortion – though what it has actually contributed remains unclear. 

On the one hand, abortion opponents – in this case led by CMP and its supporters – are counting on the videos to shock Americans into seeing the controversial practice the same way they do: as murder.

Many have commented on the casual tone used by Planned Parenthood employees to discuss fetus parts. "Some number of persuadable people who haven’t thought deeply about the subject will realize that doctors are sometimes killing something with a liver, and perhaps start to think of the unborn as possessing livers rather than just clumps of cells," writes The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf.

At the same time, abortion rights supporters are using the controversy to reiterate how shutting down abortion providers also keeps women from accessing health services, and sometimes forces them down dangerous paths.

"In their view," Mr. Friedersdorf writes, "prohibiting abortion would be gruesome: a guarantor of horrific outcomes for women that would play out in millions of horrific scenes" – some of which, he added, involve the accidental deaths of women.

Defunding family planning organizations affiliated with abortion – like Planned Parenthood – could also have devastating consequences for low-income women, abortion rights advocates argue. A November 2013 report on the state of reproductive care in Texas, published by human rights campaign Nuestra Texas ("Our Texas"), describes "women who have been waiting for years to afford mammograms," which Planned Parenthood offers on a sliding scale for low-income women.

Framed this way, the abortion debate seems distinctly black and white: Either you’re for killing babies, or you’re for killing women. Neither notion is conducive to productive conversation or policy. 

But despite the harsh tone of recent articles both supporting and condemning Planned Parenthood, polls suggest that most Americans are not as sharply divided over the issue as the extremists on either side. 

A Vox survey on abortion policy published in April found that plenty of Americans identify neither as only "pro-choice" nor as only "pro-life”: 21 percent said they were neither, while 18 percent said they were both. A Gallup poll released in May produced similar results: 49 percent of US adults said they believed abortion should be legal in some circumstances, versus 29 percent who said it should always be legal and 19 percent who said it should always be illegal.

"It is no secret that popular media have a real struggle communicating complexity," Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy writes in his book, "Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation." "Thus they struggle not only to accurately describe what Americans think about abortion, but also the complex reasons many women have abortions.... [T]he reality for women is far messier and cannot be captured by a headline or Tweet.”

The Planned Parenthood videos and their resulting fallout are no exception. While they have renewed important debates about ethics and policy on a number of critical issues, the controversy appears to have done little to forward reasonable discussion about abortion and abortion policy – discussion that is both possible and valuable, Vox senior editor Sarah Kliff writes.

“We’ve framed our abortion debate all wrong,” she wrote. “It isn’t black and white – it’s thousands of different shades of gray that exist somewhere in the middle. This matters because by ignoring that gray space, we miss something important: there are abortion policies that a majority of Americans could agree on.”

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