Planned Parenthood, Atticus Finch, & The New York Times

Yesterday’s New York Times editorial offered a defense of Planned Parenthood amidst an overwhelming public outcry against it. I'd like to highlight one reason among many why that's a bad position. I no longer make my living as a journalist, but I’m not so far gone from the Fourth Estate that I can’t see its decay. 

Pundits, politicians, and citizens are, rightly, working overtime to sort through the facts and allegations brought to light by an organization called the Center For Medical Progress (CMP) last week. The CMP posted videos of meetings with Planned Parenthood senior leaders — Dr. Deborah Nucatola and Dr. Mary Gatter — in which they discuss, over salad and Merlot, the process of crushing and dismembering live fetuses for the purpose of harvesting and selling tissue and organs. Dr. Gatter also negotiates a fee for such a procedure. Even if you don’t believe that those organs belong to a human, it’s sickening to watch. Since the video surfaced, there have been even more lurid assertions related to profits taken from such sales, the ethics of such sales, and the legality of the procedures themselves. Senators and governors from Capitol Hill to the Texas Hill Country are calling for investigations, de-funding, and all manner of retreat from association with Planned Parenthood. (If you need to catch up, you can see the videos here and read the Times column here. I also suggest blogger Jonathan Merritt’s response here.)

It is hard to defend Planned Parenthood at a time like this. Even the most staunch pro-choice voices have either gone silent or started to hedge. But not the Times. Yesterday’s editorial was titled “The Campaign of Deception Against Planned Parenthood.” I guess we should applaud the Times editorial board for its loyalty. Like a battered woman, the Grey Lady is willing to stand by her man even when it’s clear that her man is betraying trust. 

The narrow defense for Planned Parenthood offered by the Times relates to two rather procedural objections: the way CMP collected and edited the video, and the legality of Planned Parenthood's work. I think those two points make a weak defense, but my assertion today is that they also support a wider reason to mistrust Planned Parenthood. If an organization can only defend its actions with minutia like this, one has to wonder whether its actions are worth defending. Let’s take each leg of the Times defense in order. 

The Times took issue with the fact that CMP edited more than two hours of raw footage down to nine minutes. The assertion seemed to be that CMP only selected the most damning parts. This is true, and I appreciate CMP’s thoughtfulness in helping us get to the point. I don’t have time to watch Dr. Nucatola order lunch. This point has been rendered moot anyway since CMP has posted the entire unedited video. Turns out, it is no less damning than the edited version. 

The Times also seemed to imply that video taken surreptitiously is not to be trusted since its producers were clearly trying to “trap” their subject. Of course, this comes off as colossally hypocritical from an organization who scored its greatest achievement by extracting secrets from a source named Deep Throat. Readers may have no doubt that the same clandestine activity would be lauded as good journalism if undertaken by a Times reporter. 

The second category of defense in the Times piece related to the legality of Planned Parenthood’s actions. If that agency isn’t breaking any laws, that’s well and good, but it misses the point. Pro-life advocates are not interested in straining gnats from Planned Parenthood’s compliance procedures; they are trying to stop swallowing flies. If the only knock on Planned Parenthood was that they were breaking the law, then this issue wouldn’t be nearly so troubling. But it’s worse than that. Planned Parenthood’s actions may be both legal and unjust. 

But, of course, we’ll never know. One hundred percent of the evidence offered of Planned Parenthood’s rectitude is their word. They say they aren’t engaging in the illegal sale of body parts, so we must believe them. Planned Parenthood would never lie. 

And that is the issue that could become the most problematic for Planned Parenthood. People are willing to accept a certain level of proprietary dialog for any organization, but this seems beyond the pale. When a breach like this occurs, trust is eroded. The Center For Medical Progress created a false organization and front story because it had to. We now know that Planned Parenthood says things in private that they won’t say in public. Their response, and their defense in the Times, was not “So what? Everybody knows we do those things. We talk about it in public. It’s on our website. Here’s a keynote address from our last franchisee meeting about how to get a Lamborghini.” No, Planned Parenthood has clearly been rattled by the light of investigative journalism shined on its dark medicine. The organization did not want the public to know about the nature of the practices in its clinics or conversations with its potential buyers. 

Perhaps a literary reference will bring this home. In preparation for the release of Harper Lee’s second book, I recently reread the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Besides the obvious correlation between abortion and the book’s title, this scandal has caused me to remember a line about its hero. Atticus Finch, the courageous, upstanding and fair-minded attorney who defends a wrongly-accussed black man, is esteemed in the eyes of his neighbors and children primarily for one reason — his integrity. A character named Miss Maudie Atkinson articulates it thus:

“Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets.”

Regardless of what you think of abortion, of Planned Parenthood, of the Center For Medical Progress, or of undercover videos, this week’s revelations can only confirm that Planned Parenthood is not built on any integrity that makes for a hero. The organization thousands of women are trusting with their health care is not to be trusted. And a newspaper who will sideline fairness and balance to defend the indefensible may not be either.