The pro-life advocacy group Center for Medical Progress went undercover to expose Planned Parenthood's practice of (legal) fetal organ harvesting during (legal) abortions and the subsequent (generally legal) sale of those organs (if certain regulations are followed). That sounds like pretty neutral language to me, though I will concede that (at least) the words "pro-life", "expose" and "sale" are somewhat fraught, but I don't mean any of those words judgmentally. CMP is indisputably pro-life; they had a specific agenda of discrediting Planned Parenthood for engaging in acts they believe to be immoral and illegal; and Planned Parenthood was indisputably selling fetal tissue and organs, though whether how it did so was illegal or immoral is above my pay grade in both respects and not the point of this post.
The point of this post is how two ideological sides see the same video and not only have different emotional reactions to the video but also make wholly contradictory fact claims about what the video shows.
To wit, on September 16, at the second GOP debate, Carly Fiorina referenced those tapes. Imploring Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to watch the tapes, for the purpose of defunding Planned Parenthood, Fiorina said:
"Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’"
It's two weeks later and it is still hotly contested whether she was telling the truth or not. Where you stood on the truth of this statement, as always, depends on where you sit. Generally pro-choice media outlets (Vox, Slate, Slate again) said that it was a lie. Generally pro-life media (The Federalist, Commentary, National Review) said that it not only was it not a lie, it was self-evidently true, which you would know if you watched the tapes, and the only reason to call it a lie was as part of a liberal media scam to keep people from watching the tapes.
I'll put my biases up here, so it doesn't look like I'm hiding them: I'm pro-choice and not conflicted about it. I don't see abortion as something cavalier, but I also don't suspect that the women who have abortions do either. I don't pretend that there isn't something sad about the termination of potential human life but I also don't believe that the moment of conception grants the fetus rights at the expense of the pregnant woman's autonomy. Where that leaves me is, more or less, in the murky moral/legal sphere of Roe v. Wade, where the fetus's rights are in conflict with the rights of the woman and, in general, the autonomous, adult woman wins. If that means that you are going to stop reading now, so be it.
I didn't want to watch hours of tapes to see if what is, at best, 10 seconds of footage were accurately described by Fiorina, so I asked Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist, a twitter pal with whom I share very little in common ideologically and she's even a Cardinals fan (ugh) to send me a link of the specific clip. Someone else jumped in and offered one, which Mollie didn't object to, so I assume it was the right clip. I watched it.
You can watch it for yourself here but I suspect it won't be easy viewing for everyone. The moment Fiorina describes was at about 6 minutes, though I watched all 10 minutes, since I promised Mollie I would.
The full tape has basically three elements: (1) guerrilla interview clips of various officials from Planned Parenthood and Stem Express – PP's organ-sale middleman – discussing abortions, organ preservation and sale; (2) Holly O'Donnell, a woman who claims to be a former employee of Stem Express describing, specifically and emotionally, the time she was allegedly asked to help extract the intact brain of a recently aborted fetus and did so; and (3) generic footage from other sources of what are purported to be aborted fetuses.
The footage from category 3 was on screen – and you can see the fetus's leg twitch – while the former employee got to the part of her story where she discussed being asked to assist in cutting out the brain. So, if you read Fiorina's statement again, it is literally true. When Slate or Vox say that "the tape doesn't show that" they are dodging a little. There is a fully-formed fetus; there is evidence of nerve activity; someone is talking about extracting a brain. Calling Fiorina's description a "lie" doesn't fully capture what the tape shows. Arguably, by calling it an outright lie, you steer people away from watching the tape and judging for themselves.
But to say that means that Fiorina was telling the truth, or that Slate/Vox are lying themselves is not honest at all. What the left-wing "factcheckers" are saying is that Fiorina is being intentionally deceptive, carefully choosing words that literally describe the tape while misleading the listener into thinking other than what it is. I would argue that Fiorina is implying that the tape contains footage of an abortion, in progress, during which someone gives the instruction to cut out a fetus's brain. That it is a person recalling her experience over archival footage of an allegedly aborted fetus is not a small difference. Either the tape contains a violent surgery on a still-live fetus, or it contains a person reporting it secondhand. Fiorina told the truth in the incredibly circumscribed way a big brother on a road trip is telling the truth while he waves his finger a half-inch from the face of his agitated sister, as he chants "I'm not touching you" after his parents have admonished him to stop touching his sister.
Both sides more or less concede this. Buried in all the factchecker articles is a sentence something like this: "The third Human Capital video has stock footage of a fetus kicking on a table … It also has an interview with Holly O'Donnell,… [who] says that, in her former job, she was once instructed to procure the brain tissue from the remains of an aborted fetus.". Likewise, buried in all of the defenses of Fiorina is something like this: So: Fiorina may have misstated things a bit, since the relationship between the footage of the kicking baby and the horrific actions described in the interview is more one of video illustration rather than video documentation of the incident itself.
If I had to choose from the binary of true/false, I would say Fiorina's statement was false. If I'm being generous, I think one could argue that Fiorina's statement was truthy because, if you are passionately pro-life, an aborted fetus plus the testimony of someone who is wracked with guilt over having participated in abortions in the past isn't significantly different from actual footage of doctors discussing cutting out a brain as the fetus lies, exposed, before them. If I were being less generous, I'd say that if you find the contents of the tape sufficiently appalling that it would motivate people who see it to reject abortion or, at least reject funding for Planned Parenthood, it isn't a big deal to oversell what the tape actually shows with a delicately parsed description.
I understand why opponents of abortion want the videos shared widely. In the same way I, as an opponent of the death penalty, instinctively think video of a man drooling and convulsing as the execution drugs ravaged his body would motivate people to forbid execution by the state. After watching this video, and my own lack of reaction to the video, I'm no longer convinced that's true for either abortion or the death penalty.
Other drafts of this post had more detailed descriptions of the video, but you can watch the video. If you think abortion is akin to murder, a doctor describing fetal organ extraction the way a mechanic might talk about loosening a rusty bolt will be disquieting (if you are pro-choice you'll probably have my reaction, and it will sound like ordinary people talking shop). Despite my caveats above I don't think Ms. O'Donnell is lying; I believe she is emotionally devastated. The video is sad. But nobody at Slate or Vox or the Washington Post or anywhere else said that the videos weren't sad. What they said was that there wasn't video of an abortion in progress, in which doctors casually talked about brain extraction. That's what Fiorina was clearly implying at the debate. It is a specific, compelling image. And it isn't on the tape. So to me, to Vox, to Slate, Fiorina's statement was a calculated lie.
But I don't think I was the audience for Fiorina or the tapes at all. She said what she said during a primary for the Republican presidential nomination These tapes are meant for people who are already pro-life, to spur them to action, and that's the audience that candidates in a GOP primary debate are talking to. To that audience, the distinction between what Fiorina said was on the tapes and what they'd find if they actually watched is small beer. To them, Fiorina told the truth.
These worlds won't, and probably can't, be reconciled.
Last 5 posts by Charles
- If You Watch the Tape, You'll Still See What You Want To - September 29th, 2015
- On Dying - April 6th, 2014
- Not All Layers of An Onion Are Equally Worth Peeling Back - February 26th, 2013
- Did someone mention consistency? - February 5th, 2013
- Is That A Mote In Your Dog's Eye? - April 17th, 2012