To some, Planned Parenthood is immoral; to others, it’s doing God’s work (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) Many of us have fervent religious beliefs about aborted fetuses: namely, that if utilizing them for medical research can save a life, it is a moral obligation to do so.

The Planned Parenthood logo is pictured outside a clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 27, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dominick Reuter *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PLANNED-PARENTHOOD, originally transmitted on July 16, 2015.

The Planned Parenthood logo is pictured outside a clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 27, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dominick Reuter *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PLANNED-PARENTHOOD, originally transmitted on July 16, 2015.

(RNS) There are so many lies in the “gotcha” videos of Planned Parenthood staff members — jump cuts, edits, distortion, lack of context, entrapment — that defenders of the beleaguered organization have been loathe to grant them any merit whatsoever.

When one staff member says “we don’t sell organs” and the editor makes it seem like they do, and when another says Planned Parenthood is “not in it for the money,” and the video suggests that they are, it’s understandable that many want to focus on the deceit.

But this has left progressives open to the charge that they are unwilling to discuss the merits of what the videos do show.

Let’s suppose that what the undercover videos depict is true: that two staff members were occasionally cavalier about the work they do, and that they treated fetal tissues as commodities. On first blush, this shouldn’t be so surprising.

After all, funeral home workers are inured to corpses, nurses are inured to sick patients — it’s human nature to numb ourselves to the work we do every day, even in matters of the sacred. It’s how we cope.

But let’s go further. Let’s grant that many people find it morally repugnant to talk about fetuses with words like “crush” and “specimens.”

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Fine — but that is just one philosophical, even theological, proposition. Sure, if the staff members are talking about babies, their discussion is inexcusable. But for many religious Americans, a fetus is not morally equivalent to a person. We don’t think that fetuses are “babies”; we think they are fetuses. Deserving of moral consideration, yes, but not the same consideration as people — and most importantly, consideration on the part of the woman carrying them. Not you or me.

So even if two Planned Parenthood staff members really are blase about harvesting fetal tissue, that, too, is just another philosophical position. They are regarding this tissue as material, not sacred.

You or I may disagree with that assessment, but must all government-funded service providers agree with our philosophical worldviews? Isn’t the whole point of a constitutional democracy that we don’t get to decide other people’s religious and philosophical beliefs for them?

Here’s an example of a government-funded organization whose religious beliefs I find offensive: Catholic Charities, which at $4.3 billion in revenue is 23 times larger than the $185 million Planned Parenthood.

According to 2013 data reported in Forbes Magazine, 65 percent of Catholic Charities’ revenues derive from government sources.

Catholic Charities is the leading provider of adoption services in many states — services that arguably should be provided by the government, but are instead outsourced to this particular organization.

And according to their sincere religious beliefs, my partner and I are unfit to be parents, because we are both male. So, thanks to the religious exemptions baked into government regulations these days, Catholic Charities can take $2.8 billion of taxpayer money, and still discriminate against me.

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They’ll never place a child in my family, no matter how moral I am, how fit I am to be a parent, how sincere my own religious beliefs. That is, to put it mildly, offensive to me.

In fact, Catholic Charities’ discrimination is actually a worse offense than whatever those Planned Parenthood staff members said. They’re telling me I’m less than fully human, and acting on that belief. Not only are they telling me I’m less than fully human, they are acting on that belief, and causing me harm — not just offense.

So, two nonprofit organizations, both taking money from the government, both acting in accord with their philosophical views, both distasteful to some.

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If we have space in our democracy for Catholic Charities to discriminate against me based on their philosophical views, we should also have space for Planned Parenthood to offend some people based on theirs.

I’ll even go one step further. These two Planned Parenthood staff members seem to have a scientific, materialistic attitude toward fetal tissue. But many of us have fervent religious beliefs about it: namely, that if utilizing it for medical research can save a life, it is a moral obligation to do so.

As a rabbi of progressive Judaism, that is my view. Of course, under the Constitution the pregnant woman is the sole arbiter of what happens to the potential life inside of her. But religiously, in my tradition, it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to save a human life. And if the remnants of a potential life can help save an actual one, then God bless all those who make it possible to do so.

These are not just my views. Nearly 20 years ago, the Conservative movement, then the largest movement in American Judaism, ruled that not only is organ donation permitted — it is religiously required. The Jewish-legal issues regarding the use of fetal tissue for stem cell research are more complicated, but many rabbis believe the obligation to be similar.

So, yes, in my religious understanding, those two Planned Parenthood staff members are helping fulfill a divine commandment. Perhaps not as delicately as they should have been, but once again, that’s human nature.

As everyone knows, the real purpose of the videos — the work of a young activist bankrolled and supported  by the leadership of the extremist Operation Rescue organization — is to shock middle America into seeing Planned Parenthood as some callous, inhuman “other.” (Note the numerous references to wine in conservative coverage of the event, as if sipping wine is, itself, a sign of decadence and decay.) These are traffickers in death, the videos say.

But even if the videos are telling the truth (which they are not), other interpretations are possible. Perhaps these medical professionals are exercising their right to freely exercise their religion, or the lack thereof. Perhaps they are even doing God’s work.