Planned Parenthood and the Statist Abyss

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On Tuesday, a sickening undercover video blew up the Internet, and for good reason: Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, was caught on camera yukking it up over red wine and a fancy salad. The topic: how to best kill an unborn baby in order to preserve, and then distribute, the resulting dead baby parts through a taxpayer-subsidized organization.

Ahem, I’m sorry. I meant “generic, mysterious, shapeless, non-human fetal tissue.” That’s the correct term, right? Let’s go to the tape.

“A lot of people want liver,” a nonchalant Nucatola told operatives of the pro-life Center for Medical Progress, who were posing as fetal organ buyers—and who also, somewhat miraculously, managed to make it through the lunch without crying, committing Japanese ritual suicide, or throwing up all over the focaccia.

“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver,” Nucatola added, “so I’m not gonna crush that part. I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”

Ah, the ancient, wondrous art of carefully excavating tiny, fully formed livers, lungs, and hearts from an unborn human—say, an “18-weeker” (that’s Planned Parenthood parlance) that can hear and yawn and punch—that was alive before you got there, but somehow, for reasons no one wants to think about, now is not! What mastery, to stop the beating of a functional heart, take it from its owner, send it off to a lab for “$30-$100,” and “crush” the rest of whatever that is!

Upon further consideration, it’s no wonder Dr. Nucatola was sucking down that lunchtime wine. Even after years in “the business,” long after her conscience had slowly withered into a thimble-sized, bone-dry, hollow-eyed, abandoned desert cattle skull, there’s sure to be some sand blowing through every now and then.

When I say the video “blew up the Internet,” I should clarify: In the hours after the story broke, it took over Twitter and multiple right-leaning media outlets. The much-maligned “mainstream media”—The New York Times, NBC News, et al—were largely mute, at least until the Washington Post broke in with a late-afternoon web post. (Fun fact: If you searched for “Planned Parenthood” on the Post’s website before 4:30 p.m., you’d get a story about how Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker, who promotes the wild and crazy idea that maybe taxpayers shouldn’t be giving Planned Parenthood hundreds of millions of dollars a year, is “unbending and excitable.”)

By Wednesday, the press was all over the story, albeit with one curious, leading angle: “Sure, Planned Parenthood’s neck-deep in a national market for the body parts of unborn babies, but it’s all probably legal! Legal, you see! What other gauge of morality could you possibly need?”

That’s not an actual quote, but it’s pretty much the gist. Much of the press echoed Planned Parenthood’s own damage-control press release, which touted its “tissue donation programs” that help support “lifesaving scientific research,” are never used to make a profit, and are sometimes “reimbursed” to cover costs.

“Lost in the screaming are a few facts,” Ed Kilgore scowled at Washington Monthly, “such as the lack of any evidence the abortions in question are actually illegal.” The practice of “fetal tissue transplantation,” Newsweek reminded us, “is entirely legal.”

Cosmo called the video a “yawn,” with evidence of anything “illegal” “sorely lacking.” The New York Times and the Associated Press seemed to agree: As long as there is consent from “the patient”—that means the mother, not the dismembered mini-human—and there is no profit involved, there is nothing, at least we are told, to see here.

We’ll see about that. It looks like there’s a whole lot to see, and at this moment, Planned Parenthood is gearing up for more legal scrutiny than it has seen in years. This is a good thing. But for hard-core abortion advocates, interestingly, it also might be the lesser of two evils. After all, legal arguments are a fantastic distraction from the video’s most important lesson, and the reason it went viral: Abortion, when you’re forced to acknowledge the reality of it, is an obvious moral horror. It involves killing little humans, many with lungs and hearts—not just “clumps” of “tissue”—and it happens every day. But hey, don’t worry: It’s legal! 

What can we make of a culture, growing in prominence in America, that seems to draw its moral guidelines from what is legally permitted—or endorsed—by the state? In this view, the law does not follow from a higher moral authority; the law is the higher moral authority. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of history should know that this is nonsense, that the law is capricious, and that the past 200 years alone are filled with “legal” atrocities. So why do certain people fall for this approach again and again?

Perhaps a statist God is easier to deal with than a real one. Perhaps, on a deeper level, we think we can control the former, or justify certain actions. If you watch the entire video of Dr. Deborah Nucatola’s Nightmare Lunchtime Roundup, you’ll witness her amazing willingness to push, pull, and twist her organization’s abortion practices—abortions past 20 weeks, “partial birth” abortions by another name, and more—to the outermost edge of the law.

“Laws are up to interpretation,” she says breezily. Indeed. When they’re the only thing holding you back from the abyss, you’re in a dangerous place. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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