In an op-ed for the New York Times, former news anchor Campbell Brown has some advice for Planned Parenthood:
Once again, Planned Parenthood is potentially making an enemy of someone who has failed to pass its purity test. It’s gotten to the point where, in this election cycle, the group’s political arm (while proudly claiming to be nonpartisan) has not endorsed or directly given money to a single Republican. As a person who believes abortions should be safe, legal and rare, I support many of Planned Parenthood’s goals. But the militancy must go. Demanding a perfect record from candidates it supports has already left Planned Parenthood marginalized. So does an attitude that doesn’t ever seem to take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter or that those on the anti-abortion side are often decent and well-intentioned people.
Putting aside Brown’s ideas about what would be the most pragmatic way for Planned Parenthood to build political support, the claim that they need to “take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter” is puzzling, to say the least. Descriptively speaking, yes, it’s “morally complicated” – lots of people have different and conflicting views on abortion. What else is new? Normatively speaking, “abortion” as a whole is certainly morally complicated, but only because it encompasses a wide variety of acts.
Among these, some appear to be morally questionable, such as late-term abortion of viable fetuses when no one’s health is at risk. But others, such as earlier-term abortions for any reason, are generally considered acceptable by almost everyone – even the most vocal opponents of elective abortion. While many of them will say that the tiniest embryo is no different from a newborn, they definitely don’t act like they believe millions of children are being slaughtered at abortion clinics every year. At most, their church’s youth group will go on a road trip to the capital once a year and put duct tape on their mouths to protest what they purportedly believe is tantamount to another Holocaust. Doesn’t that just scream sincerity?
Those who do act on this belief, and kill or injure real people in the process, are universally condemned by the wider anti-abortion movement. Paul Jennings Hill fell on the wrong side of this question when he killed a doctor and his bodyguard, but he had quite a bit to say to those who call abortion murder while doing very little to stop it. Consider that if Dr. George Tiller had instead been a serial murderer of children and was shot by an ordinary citizen to prevent him from killing his next victim, people who oppose abortion likely wouldn’t see anything objectionable about this. They would not protest that he should only have been stopped through “peaceful, legal means”. Many of them characterize the actions of abortion doctors as murder, but are unwilling to follow this principle to its uncomfortable conclusion. The belief that abortion is a kind of murder does not accord with or explain their behavior. (The desire to control women does.)
So let’s not be fooled by the idea that abortion is “morally complicated”. Almost all of the time, it’s really not, and just because people may disagree about it, that doesn’t mean their arguments are equally compelling or that the ethical acceptability of abortion is actually unclear. Merely having lengthy and intricate debates about it does not make it complicated. Casting aspersions on abortion by simply making reference to its supposed moral complexity, while failing to explore, explain or endorse any specific arguments about it, is just a way of dodging accountability for your insinuation that abortion is unethical.
But regardless of the moral status of abortion, what does Brown expect Planned Parenthood to do about this? They aren’t in the philosophy business. Patients don’t go there for a crash course in applied ethics or a sermon on moral theology. They provide medical services, and that’s why people come to them. To whose advantage is it for Planned Parenthood themselves to state openly that the abortion services they provide may be immoral? Certainly not Planned Parenthood. But for the country’s largest abortion provider to describe its own work as morally ambiguous is exactly what the anti-abortion movement wants.
The purpose of Planned Parenthood is to offer reproductive health services, and to maintain its viability as an organization so it can continue to fulfill that mission. If a certain strategy helps or hinders them, then it should be examined, but Brown has given no explanation of how recognizing the alleged moral complications of abortion would advance Planned Parenthood’s goals. And however decent they may be, how have the “good intentions” of abortion opponents ever assisted Planned Parenthood in any meaningful way?