Planned Parenthood — And The Pro-Life Movement’s Catch-22

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As I noted the other day, the release of those Planned Parenthood videos constitutes huge win for the pro-life cause. The reason is simple: When the topic is late-term abortion, the harvesting and selling of organs, or — frankly, anything that unmasks the unseemly “process” of abortion — it’s good for the pro-life cause. And that’s precisely what these videos force us to grapple with.

In a way, this is a return to a playbook that worked for years. During the 1990s, pro-lifers scored points by stressing “partial-birth abortion” — but somewhere along the line (possibly because conservatives were a victim of their own success), talk of transvaginal ultrasounds and “legitimate rape” reframed the debate on much less hospitable terrain. Instead of Democrats being put on the defensive and being forced to defend the killing of a 20 week old “fetus,” it was now Republicans who found themselves getting out over their skis, talking about rape, and losing elections.

Followed to its logical conclusion, though, one could conclude that pro-lifers should devote themselves to producing more videos — and eschewing legislative restrictions on abortion.

This is a dilemma. What good is earning political capital if you’re not going to use it? It seems ridiculous that taxpayer dollars fund Planned Parenthood, and so — with the group now currently on the ropes today — it seems to make perfect sense to renew calls to dufund Planned Parenthood.

…Or is it? Over at Commentary, Noah Rothman argues that

Republicans would be foolish to let the pressure on Planned Parenthood elapse, but nor should they make themselves the focus of this story. Republicans should avoid being drawn into a convoluted debate the legal merits of the defund effort, or its viability in the courts. They would also be well served if they were to ignore arcane whip counting and decline to opine on the politics of a presidential veto. As long as the debate is a philosophical one over whether we as a society should allow this kind of barbarism, conservatives will find themselves on the winning side. In the meantime, let the videos flow and enjoy watching Planned Parenthood supporters squirm in the sunlight.

This is a bit of a Catch-22: You can’t restrict abortions unless you gain public support — but if you gain public support, trying to restrict abortion legislatively will erode some of that support …

One solution might be to abandon the legislative process altogether, and focus instead on fostering a culture of life. In other words, reduce abortions by winning the argument, not the vote. Expose the evils of the abortion industry, make it socially unacceptable to have abortions, encourage adoption, support crisis pregnancy centers, etc. — and reduce abortions (and save babies!) without trying to mandate its abolition.

But the word abolition is actually quite appropriate here. Many pro-lifers view themselves as modern-day William Wilberforces — and their cause as tantamount to a modern-day abolition movement. And just as the notion that slavery would someday simply fade away (and therefore, all the fuss over ending slavery was overwrought) feels like an act of wishful thinking or moral cowardice, people who believe abortion is murder likewise find it unacceptable for American law to support and facilitate this practice. (Should we also legalize murder — and just focus on creating a social stigma around killing your spouse or parents, they would ask?)

This comes down to a strategic disagreement over pragmatism versus principle. And it’s just one more area where conservatives who might share a similar philosophical worldview will have to do some soul searching.