In an essay in his 1976 collection, “Mortal Lessons,” the physician Richard Selzer describes a strange suburban scene. People go outside in the morning in his neighborhood, after the garbage trucks have passed, and find “a foreignness upon the pavement,” a softness underfoot.
Looking down, Selzer first thinks he sees oversize baby birds, then rubber baby dolls, until the realization comes that the street is littered with the tiny, naked, all-too-human bodies of aborted fetuses.
Later, the local hospital director speaks to Selzer, trying to impose order on the grisly scene. It was an accident, of course: The tiny corpses were accidentally “mixed up with the other debris” instead of being incinerated or interred. “It is not an everyday occurrence. Once in a lifetime, he says.”
And Selzer tries to nod along: “Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society.
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“But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know.”
Resolute abortion-rights supporters would dismiss that claim of knowledge. Death and viscera are never pretty, they would say, but something can be disgusting without being barbaric. Just because it’s awful to discover fetuses underfoot doesn’t mean the unborn have a right to life.
And it’s precisely this argument that’s been marshaled lately in response to a new reminder of the fleshly realities of abortion: The conversations, videotaped covertly by anti-abortion activists posing as fetal organ buyers, in which officials from Planned Parenthood cheerfully discuss the procedures for extracting those organs intact during an abortion.
It may be disturbing to hear those procedures described: “We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
It may be unseemly to hear a Planned Parenthood official haggle over pricing for those organs: “Let me just figure out what others are getting, and if this is in the ballpark, then it’s fine, if it’s still low, then we can bump it up. I want a Lamborghini.”
But in the end, Planned Parenthood’s defenders insist, listening to an abortionist discuss manipulating the “calvarium” (that is, the dying fetus’ skull) so that it emerges research-ready from the womb is fundamentally no different from listening to a doctor discuss heart surgery or organ transplants. It’s unsettling, yes, but just because it’s gross doesn’t prove it’s wrong.
Which is true, but in this case not really true enough. Because real knowledge isn’t purely theoretical; it’s the fruit of experience, recognition, imagination, life itself.
And the problem these videos create for Planned Parenthood isn’t just a generalized queasiness at surgery and blood.
It’s a very specific disgust, informed by reason and experience – the reasoning that notes that it’s precisely a fetus’ 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” (full videos were released), or else simply asked people to look away. And it’s why many colleagues 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-abortion rights 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 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 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.
The anti-abortion sting was sweeping; there are reportedly 10 videos to go. You can turn away. But there will be plenty of chances to look, to see, to know.
The New York Times