For the the last few days, Republicans have been trumpeting a recently-released undercover video showing a Planned Parenthood executive calmly discussing, over wine and a salad, techniques for aborting fetuses so that their organs can be harvested and provided to medical researchers. “I’d say a lot of people want liver,” the organization’s senior director for medical services, Deborah Nucatola, explains.
Thus far, most of the controversy about the video has centered on whether Planned Parenthood violated federal or state laws by “selling baby parts,” with Republican officials including the Speaker of the House announcing investigations and hearings, and many on the left dismissing accusations of wrongdoing as absurd. But intelligent commentators from Rich Lowry on the pro-life right to Michelle Goldberg on the pro-choice left recognize that the legality of Planned Parenthood’s practices is a red herring. Based on the available evidence, it appears that the organization most likely did not run afoul of federal organ trafficking laws—but that doesn’t mean that the video is insignificant or even materially misleading, as many liberals seem to believe.
To the contrary, the Nucatola video is a real opportunity for the pro-life side to move the needle on the abortion debate because it focuses attention on how extreme (by the standards of public opinion) the absolutist pro-choice position actually is.
It is no secret that in the great majority of culture war theaters—from same-sex marriage to pre-marital sex to marijuana use—the forces of individualism and permissiveness are on the march. Abortion, however, stands out as “the great American exception“—the one issue where the long-running American trend toward ever-expanding personal autonomy seems not to apply. Americans’ views on abortion are muddled and ever-fluctuating, but they do not seem to be bending toward either the absolutist pro-choice or the absolutist pro-life side. Polls show a public cautiously in favor of early-term abortion rights, yet strongly opposed to late-term abortions absent extraordinary circumstances. Meanwhile, both major parties’ positions are, in the context of public opinion, extreme: many Republican politicians favor a blanket abortion ban, while most Democratic politicians oppose virtually all restrictions on the practice. As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt has said, “abortion is the relatively rare issue in which the cliché is true: public opinion does actually rest about midway between the parties’ platforms”—and is likely to stay there for the foreseeable future, absent some major new development.
In this context—a public opinion in the murky middle and both major parties locked at the poles—the best strategy for culture warriors on both sides is to characterize their opponents’ position as extreme. That’s why, during the 2012 elections, the Democrats tried, quite successfully, to make an election issue out of Todd Akin, the Republican Congressional candidate who said that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape because, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The controversy drew attention to GOP opposition to rape exceptions, which is widespread among Republican politicians but very unusual among the general public.
Polls show that, except in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is at risk, the overwhelming majority of the public believes that abortion should be limited to the first trimester, when abortions are generally either performed chemically or through “vacuum aspiration.” The forceps-crushing technique Nucatola describes, on the other hand, is generally used in abortions performed during or after the second trimester. Moreover, while most Americans consider abortion to be a morally serious matter, Nucatola’s carefree tone draws attention to the radicalism of the “abortion and demand and without apology” position of some pro-choice activists.
In the stalemated abortion debate, the best way to nudge public opinion in one direction or another is to highlight the extremism of the other side. The Nucatola video might do just that.