On Planned Parenthood controversy, New York Times swings and whiffs (COMMENTARY)

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The sun peeks over the New York Times Building in New York on August 14, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MERRITT-COLUMN, originally transmitted on July 23, 2015.

The sun peeks over the New York Times Building in New York on August 14, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MERRITT-COLUMN, originally transmitted on July 23, 2015.

(RNS) When The New York Times’ editorial board remained silent for an entire week amid a fierce Planned Parenthood controversy, I looked at my watch and assumed the board must be out to lunch. Today, the historic newspaper’s editorial board published a response to the situation and proved that, yes, indeed it is.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the fury started when an anti-abortion activist group, the Center for Medical Progress, released a nine-minute undercover video showing Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services flippantly discussing the practice of providing aborted baby parts to medical researchers. On Tuesday, a second video was released, showing a similar situation with another doctor haggling over tissue prices. Both detail the gruesome procedures used to terminate a pregnancy and harvest organs from newly deceased babies.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were outraged by the videos’ content. Prominent conservative politicians and religious leaders called for Planned Parenthood to be stripped of its federal funding, which led to the hashtag #DefundPP trending on social media.

READ: Planned Parenthood, ‘personhood,’ ethics and the unwinnable war

But The New York Times’ editorial board, whose members almost all favor abortion rights, decided that those who are providing the baby parts are the real victims. In an editorial titled “The Campaign of Deception Against Planned Parenthood,” the paper characterized the videos as nothing more than “the latest in a series of unrelenting attacks on Planned Parenthood.” By sidestepping the elements of this story that have outraged Americans, it’s as if the editorial board is trying to prove correct the conservatives who claim that the paper is run by left-leaning elitists.

The thrust of the editorial’s argument is that it is perfectly legal for Planned Parenthood to offer “fetal tissue” from aborted babies for research. That may be true, and as more facts become available, we will likely discover whether these transactions are illegal “sales” or legal “donations.” But this is not the primary issue for the anti-abortion advocates I have spoken to. These conservatives are calling for defunding, not incarceration.

The central matter for those who oppose abortion is not whether Planned Parenthood’s practices are legal, but whether they are just. There is often a difference. Many abortion opponents, myself included, agree with the Times that “tissue donations” are “potentially lifesaving.” We are not opposed to organ donations outright. Our major objection is that the process by which these organs and tissues are collected and sold is unethical.

READ: Maker of secret video says he prays for Deborah Nucatola, considers her a friend

The Times also claimed the video was unreliable because it was “edited.” That is correct in that the full video was nearly three hours long while the edited version was only nine minutes. So what? Comments made in the longer version do not invalidate those in the shorter. While the editorial board hopes to convince readers that the Center for Medical Progress was deliberately only telling part of the story, the board fails to mention that the full video was also posted online and available. So who is withholding information here? And, by the way, the full video is just as repulsive as the shorter version. In fact, it’s about two hours and 50 minutes more repulsive.

Much of the Times’ focus was on an issue that is not critical to this discussion: how the videos were obtained. The editorial is correct in claiming that the Center for Medical Progress also used deceptive practices to obtain the video. Yes, the center set up a sham organization and lied about its intentions. But the way the videos were obtained does not alter the material in the videos themselves. So this objection is nothing more than a distraction from the real issue in this matter: the morality of selling aborted baby parts as if they were just another capitalistic commodity.

The most embarrassing part of the Times editorial, though, is not what it says but what it does not say. The editorial board totally ignores the most disturbing content in the videos. Actually, the board ignores the content of the videos almost completely. None of the quotes at the center of the outrage are discussed.

You’ll find no mention of how a Planned Parenthood doctor determines which parts of the baby to “crush” in the Times editorial. You won’t encounter information about how a Planned Parenthood physician discussed using a “less crunchy” technique to retrieve “whole specimens.” And you definitely won’t read about how a Planned Parenthood doctor attempted to negotiate a higher price for tissue because she claims she wanted “a Lamborghini.” These are the most damning components in the videos, but the editorial never even mentions them. [tweetable]The Times did not merely get the Planned Parenthood editorial wrong; it missed it completely.[/tweetable]

The only fully forthcoming part of the editorial was when it asserted that Planned Parenthood clinics provide many critical health care services, such as Pap smears, cancer screening and contraception for millions of women each year. That is correct. Conservatives who cast Planned Parenthood as a morally bankrupt organization that contributes nothing of value to society are spinning a partial tale. In fact, many of Planned Parenthood’s services are indispensable to women’s reproductive health. Some, such as contraception, actually prevent unplanned pregnancy and help decrease abortion rates.

While Planned Parenthood is not ethically bankrupt, it is sufficiently suspect. We have enough information — and not just in these two videos — to conclude that Planned Parenthood is neither worthy of the public’s trust nor of many of the millions our government grants the organization each year. American tax dollars should be spent in the most ethical way possible, and we must reject the false notion that Planned Parenthood is the only option for providing the reproductive services to women.

Jonathan Merritt photo courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing editor for The Week. He has published more than 1,500 articles in outlets including USA Today, The Atlantic and National Journal. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Merritt

Perhaps rather than speaking of defunding Planned Parenthood, we should talk of reinvesting in more ethical options. In the regions where more ethical options are available, funds should be diverted. And in other regions, where Planned Parenthood clinics are the only ones around, funding should be made available for more ethical options to develop.

As USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers argues, Planned Parenthood’s ghastly behavior and some liberals’ efforts to justify it proves that “society has gone off the rails.” She’s right. Society is going off the rails on this issue. And while much of America is trying to repair the tracks, The New York Times’ editorial board is seated in the dining car sipping flutes of Veuve Clicquot.

A society cannot fix what it will not acknowledge is broken.

(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing editor for The Week. He has published more than 1,500 articles in outlets including USA Today, The Atlantic and National Journal. )


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  • Tom Downs

    is a whiff the same as having a point of view? Or is it just a view someone disagrees with. Abortion is a subject we can no longer talk about without having an argument.

  • Philip

    Mr. Merritt’s article is very well written. A business to succeed, even a ghastly business, needs to create a market for its product. How one achieves this, books have been written on the subject. This market has had its genesis in America at the end of World War II, as a rough date to start with. Believe it or not, for better or worse, when you win the right to vote in America, you can vote in what you want, practically. A key phrase needs to be mentioned: triangulation. Big Capitalism, Women’s Rights, Communism. All three together make the issue of abortion marketable. Simply put, sex sells! Communism; there is no moral prudence which unleashed a market of unwanted pregnancies .Women were given the right to their bodies over objections of the father. Needless to say, the majority of men were happy. 1974 Roe vs Wade legalization without defamation or moral impedance unleashed a huge market for the corporate Planned Parenthood to milk. The author failed to mention . .

  • Philip

    The author failed to mention the market would not exist if the Moral Imperative on Life were intact, not just for the mother, but for the father. It becomes hard to argue against Planned Parenthood that its only crime ( & there is none on jurisprudence but according to religious belief all Life is sacred) is to give its customers what they want. There are over a million abortions a year. Imagine how long the line would stretch outside your door of women waiting in line to abort .Call it what you may, at the end it is a human life. Nobody can argue that the result of a pregnancy is the beginning that will result in a human life. Society, like a market, votes with their feet what laws, what rulers, what morals they wish to stand for. Planned Parenthood only services what the customer wants. Laissez faire Society, the Faith, Capitalism can only gain or lose their market share. Make no mistake; the powers that be will use laws & consensus to abort segments of our population. Form the line.

  • Ken Ridge

    Very deceptive, because in this case the statements edited out in an effort to show Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for a profit, include:

    “No one’s going to see this as a money making thing.”
    “Our goal, like I said, is to give patients the option without impacting our bottom line.
    “The messaging is this should not be seen as a new revenue stream, because that’s not what it is.”
    “Affiliates are not looking to make money by doing this. They’re looking to serve their patients and just make it not impact their bottom line.”

    These statements make it clear that Planned Parenthood is charging for this tissue to defray costs, rather than to make a profit.

    Unfortunately, the author of this article is as dishonest as the producer of the video, the Center for Medical Progress.