The controversy over Planned Parenthood is in danger of being memified, which ensures that it will not be processed in a thoughtful, meaningful way—and also that it may have surprisingly little impact on the debate.
When I finally got through the transcripts of the first video, I found the whole thing was a let-down. The case wasn’t about what it seemed to be about based on the selected excerpts we had been offered. I was expecting a smoking gun, unequivocal proof, of two big things: that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal organs for profit, and that it was harvesting organs from late-term abortions. Instead, I found that the cases being discussed were mostly in the first trimester, and the quote about clinics wanting to “better than break even” was surrounded by at least eight flat statements (including the very next sentence) that Planned Parenthood was not looking to make a profit and didn’t regard this as a revenue stream.
More broadly, the video did not show the amoral cynicism I was led to expect. To be sure, the video featured someone who does not believe abortion is evil talking as if she does not believe abortion is evil—which is more than enough for many people. But that’s not something I find shocking or that is actually going to move the dial on the debate.
So what about the second video released this week, the one that shows Mary Gatter, the medical director of a small clinic affiliated with Planned Parenthood, declaring that she wants to buy a Lamborghini from her ill-gotten profits?
This is equally underwhelming when you read the whole transcript. It is supposed to show Dr. Gatter “haggling.” Yet in the middle of the haggling there is this assurance: “But see we don’t, we’re not in it for the money, and we don’t want to be in a position of being accused of selling tissue, and stuff like that.” That could just be a pro forma disclaimer, but the “haggling” consists of this: Gatter names a dollar amount; the supposed buyer says that’s too low; she replies that she was going to go lower; he suggests a higher amount and…then the subject is dropped. I’ve haggled before, and that’s not what it looks like.
Then there’s the quote about the Lamborghini. When dollar amounts are brought up again, Gatter tables the discussion for later, but says: “It’s been years since I talked about compensation, so let me just figure out what others are getting, if this is in the ballpark, it’s fine, if it’s still low then we can bump it up. I want a Lamborghini. [laughs]” It’s clear that this was a joke, in the vein of gallows humor. What it isn’t is what many people are taking it as: a straightforward admission of greed for ill-gotten gains.
Of course, it’s easy to use “context” as an excuse to explain anything away. But it’s also easy to view the Planned Parenthood videos through the perspective of your pre-existing animus and seize on the worst possible interpretation of their words, or focus on the one sentence that justifies your hatred while ignoring those that might undermine your justification.
I have (somewhat ironically) a very Christian attitude about this: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. God forbid anyone should pore through any of my own conversations and read them the way people are reading the Planned Parenthood transcripts. So if someone were to ask me what I’m writing today, and I were to respond, “I don’t know, the Koch Brothers haven’t told me yet” (and I’m not saying this exchange has never occurred), I would hope people would understand it as a joke. But someone who wishes me ill would inevitably come along and seize on this as final proof that I’m in the pocket of Big Oil.
If we want to keep the moral high ground when the left pulls this sort of trick on us—and they will—then we need to make sure we’re being scrupulously fair, even to people we hate.
You could build an argument that the statements pulled out from the Planned Parenthood videos are improper, that in context they really do mean something awful. So in the first video when Dr. Nucatola says “better than break even,” you could argue that this is an admission of her real motives and gives the lie to her repeated protestations to the contrary.
Or you could argue that a brief and inconclusive discussion of dollar amounts is “haggling,” or that the comment about the Lamborghini, while it may not have been meant literally, shows at least a callousness regarding the subject matter.
But such detailed arguments are not what these statements are coming to stand for in people’s minds. The full argument drops away, and the meaning of each line is taken as straightforward and obvious. “I want a Lamborghini” means that this 60-something woman actually wants to buy a Lamborghini by raking in the money a few dollars at a time at a clinic that performs fewer than a thousand abortions per year.
What I’m afraid of is that this whole Planned Parenthood controversy is becoming memified, i.e., turned into a self-reinforcing meme.
I’m thinking of the way the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln was used against George W. Bush.
In context, it wasn’t President Bush’s expression of triumphalism; it was for the sailors and aviators on the aircraft carrier, who had in fact accomplished their mission. But it became a stand-in for a narrative about all the reasons lefties didn’t like Bush. Its original meaning disappeared, and the accuracy of that meaning no longer mattered. It became, not a real idea, but a meme, not an argument but a symbol for a collection of biases.
Phrases like “better than break even” or “I want a Lamborghini” are becoming similar memes, used as shorthand for a narrative about the cynical, smirking evil of Planned Parenthood—even if, in context, they don’t necessarily support that narrative. And as they harden into memes, they become resistant to debate and questioning. Since we’ve already accepted the intent of the meme, the portrayal of Planned Parenthood as cold-blooded organ-selling baby killers, then anyone who questions the meme must be defending baby-killers, right? So why should we listen to him? In this way, the meme itself functions to invalidate any criticism or analysis of it.
An awful lot of our public debate looks exactly like this.
The problem with memifying the abortion debate is not just that it prevents us from an accurate evaluation of the facts. It’s that it usually fails to make converts. Memes carry meaning to those who are aware of and sympathetic to the story behind them—but not for those who disagree. I suspect my pro-life friends and colleagues are going to be disappointed, over the long term, with the diminishing returns as the self-styled Center for Medical Progress produces more videos using the exact same techniques. And they will be disappointed by how little this whole controversy is going to move the abortion debate a year or two from now.
I think it would be very productive to have a debate about abortion and to reason carefully through the moral and philosophical rationales on either side. But we need to start from a common ground of scrupulously accurate facts, rather than letting our perspectives harden into warring memes that prevent thinking rather than stimulating it.