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Is What is Happening at Planned Parenthood "Above our Paygrade?"

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

It was almost about this time seven years ago that President Obama was asked when he thought a baby had human rights.  His answer was criticized for being a bit flippant:
"...whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question  with specificity … is above my pay grade."
The videos now coming out of Planned Parenthood officials and affiliated persons discussing the matter of collecting tissue from aborted fetuses should force this question again to the forefront.  But before addressing the question further, the response from Planned Parenthood is a farce on its face.  The unedited videos are available for anyone who wishes to consider the context. There is simply no credible explanation for what we are seeing other than the "culture of death" so assiduously nurtured by Planned Parenthood.

More than Just Moral Abstractions

But this issue, honestly, is of a piece with what has become of sexuality in gender among us as social conservatives. Instead of refusing to divorce the issue from the real lives of people, we seem to want to make this yet another argument to be won, another wedge issue to drive a political agenda, or more kindling to stoke emotional passions ahead of the next direct mail campaign for donations.

Lest anyone accuse me of trying to have it both ways or to strike a middle ground merely for the lazy sake of being in the middle, let me disabuse the reader of that up front.  I believe life begins at the point of conception and I believe the unborn child is fully human in every sense that the word "human" means anything at all.

But those are nice abstractions.  Here is real life:

The point in a pregnancy probably more fraught with expectation than that initial test and then the birth itself is the first sonogram.  When our first child came, we just wanted a healthy baby; we really had nothing emotionally invested in a boy or girl.  But me being practical, the second time around 18 months later I was rooting for another boy.  Slap the bunk beds together, hand down the clothes and we'd be set!  So going into the sonogram for our second child, we were all keyed up to find out.

And then came the 'look'.

Every parent who has seen it knows what I am talking about.  The tech doing the sonogram sees something unexpected.  But they are just a technician; they cannot make any medical diagnoses or otherwise say anything at all.  So my wife and I look at each other, wondering what we will hear when the doctor comes in and looks.

At that point the doctor could only rule it down to two possibilities.  Either part of the baby's lungs were connected to the esophagus instead of the tubes going to the lungs (both come from the same 'foregut' tissue in fetal development) or a cyst was growing next to the baby's heart.  If it turned out to be a cyst, there was the danger it would push the heart out of its place and kill the baby in the womb.  That, of course, is tragic all by itself.  But if the fetus were to start decomposing in the womb, my wife's life would be threatened by sepsis.  As such the doctor felt medical ethics required that he broach the possibility of having to terminate the pregnancy.  We were not at the point of having to make that decision, but let's just say the next two days were easily the worst of our lives.

In our Evangelical social circles we have a sense of what it means personally to be 'spiritual'.  I would love for others to think of me in those terms, but I would be lying if I did not admit that we talked about 'what if'.  Those conversations included funeral arrangements, so they were very much rooted in the belief that we were talking about the life of a unique individual.  But the abortion debate - as a matter of morality and decision-making - looks very different from that perspective than it does as a political topic for debate.

We were blessed.  Two days later a birth defect specialist repeated the tests and concluded with a fair degree of certainty that it was lung tissue hooked up to the esophagus (bronchopulmonary sequestration).  Our son - Jeffrey - had surgery at three months to correct the problem.  He is 15 now, a great athlete and in terrific shape.

But there are people who end up faced with tragic choices.  As a matter of politics, the first abstract question is whether we want the government involved in these choices.  The problem is we want to segregate our political questions from their underlying moral questions.  This, basically, is what Obama sought to do by claiming the whole thing was above his pay grade (more on that in a moment).  The underlying moral question is, of course, whether or not the fetus in the womb is a human being.  It would be nice if morality and politics never intersect, but the simple fact of life is they do.

Things We Cannot Say We Do Not Know

The fight to abolish slavery is an example.  If the humanity of the black man or woman can be questioned, then the matter of 'owning' a black man or woman as property can be legitimately debated.  But if the humanity of a black man or woman is "written on our hearts" the matter must stand above any argument.  Or in other words, there are things we cannot say we do not know - the humanity of our black neighbor being one.

And the humanity of the unborn child is another.  A sonogram can show an unborn child sucking its thumb.  Not its mom's thumb, mind you - the child is sucking his or her own thumb.  The child may not be biologically or physiologically autonomous, but its moral autonomy is right there on the screen in front of us.  And with today's 3D sonograms, this is only becoming more obvious.  You can no more look at a sonogram and then claim you do not know you have looked at a fellow human being than you can talk to your black neighbor and then claim not to know you have spoken with a fellow human being.  There are, again, some things we cannot say we do not know.

So we come back to what is and what is not within our "pay grade."  Was the humanity of black men and women above the pay grade of those who brought their Evangelical Christian convictions into public policy debates to argue for the abolition of slavery?  Were civil rights for African-Americans above the pay grade of Dr. King and all the others who marched with him?  At the end of the day these issues all drilled down to the essential humanity of black men and women.

And so as we are faced with the vile, despicable perspective of Planned Parenthood - and no, you cannot explain these things away by questioning the motives of those who surreptitiously recorded the videos - there simply is no escaping these inconvenient questions. Morality itself is meaningless if these things are above our pay grade.  And culture itself is impossible without at least some foundational, common sense of morality.  It does not have to have all of the particulars of my Judeo-Christian morality, nor does my neighbor need to sit next to me in church on Sunday nor agree with me politically on election day.  But we have to be both willing and able to judge right from wrong at some level.  These videos present to us the perfect example.

As a conservative I will never be comfortable with the idea that the government could have inserted itself if the decisions my wife and I feared we would have to make - and that other friends of mine have actually had to make and grieved bitterly for having had to make them.  Keeping the government out of our lives is the very hallmark of conservative political philosophy, so we ought to be a lot less eager to blindly insert government into these kinds of things.  But we are still dealing with a fellow human being in the womb.  This is not an argument to be won in the abstract - it is a truth already written on the human heart.

And it is most certainly not above our pay grade.

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