Shock Videos Expose Moral Blind Spots
SACRAMENTO — It’s not that hard — and it’s a bit self satisfying — to judge moral flaws from past times. Hence, legislators from both parties recently embraced a bill to ban the naming of California public buildings after leaders of the Confederacy, given that regime protected the unquestionably evil practice of slavery. There’s no risk in condemning a government that dissolved in 1865 and was mostly headquartered 2,800 miles from Sacramento.
State legislators often pass resolutions acknowledging past holocausts, genocides and injustices. It serves a valid purpose. But they — and the general public — have a tougher time examining current conundrums outside the stifling limits of partisanship and ideology. Indeed, some people get really annoyed at efforts to prick our consciences over modern blind spots.
Orange County based anti-abortion activists and self-described “citizen journalists” recently sparked a vituperative national debate over late-term abortions by releasing disturbing undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the procurement of organs and tissue from aborted fetuses. Two members of the Center for Medical Progress posed as executives from a biotech firm who were seeking “tissue” for medical research.
In one video, a Planned Parenthood official nonchalantly discusses various specimens, as she eats and sips wine. In another, a doctor championed “less crunchy” abortion techniques that would better preserve the marketable organs. Another video features an interview with a former employee of a biologic company that acquires the tissue and transfers it for research. She describes fainting on her first day of training after watching a technician divvy up a dead fetus.
Planned Parenthood and its defenders insist their nonprofit group is not profiting from abortion, but following laws that allow it to recoup certain costs. Critics want a federal investigation of the organization — and Republican members of Congress are pushing a bill to slash Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.
“This is a new low, even for anti-abortion activists who will stop at nothing in their effort to undermine a woman’s right to choose,” wrote four Democratic members of Congress to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris quickly agreed to comply with their request to investigate whether the activists who released the videos broke any California laws. The state’s top law-enforcement agency will look at whether the group violated laws in setting up its fictitious biotech company — or in recording conversations without the other party’s consent.
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles court issued a temporary restraining order halting the release of some additional videos until a hearing in August.
Some California Republican legislators called on Harris, a Democratic candidate for a U.S. Senate seat and ally of Planned Parenthood, to investigate whether Planned Parenthood violated any rules, but that’s as likely as her sporting the Confederate flag outside her office. Wrote the legislators: “When credible accusations of this grisly practice come to light, it is the responsibility of the attorney general to investigate. … So far all she seems concerned about is investigating those who helped reveal what has been going on … .”
The case raises myriad policy questions. There’s the political issue. It’s impossible to take the politics out of politics, but state attorneys general offices should have some semblance of legal balance — and not be overly partisan. Harris is weighing in on one side of a dispute rather than being an arbiter of justice, which is an allegation she faces on other issues.
And any effort to penalize a group for undercover videos is troubling. Major TV journalism outfits routinely do such stings. This is a longstanding TV news tradition. It doesn’t matter if the videos’ producers are not mainstream journalists. The rules should protect the practice of “journalism,” not a cartel of “journalists.”
But these debates ultimately are side issues — and it’s the core issue of abortion, especially in late stages, that is the reason for the blowback. During the Confederacy, the operators of the Underground Railroad were obviously violating the law. Whether videographers — or Planned Parenthood, for that matter — were following the letter of the law should be less important than what our current law will look like, morally, in hindsight by future Californians.