Conservative activists hoping to drum up political opposition to Planned Parenthood are relying on the oldest tactic in the book: Distributing graphic images of fetuses to construe abortion as a barbaric procedure that Americans cannot in good conscience allow to continue.
The third video from the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group that says it plans on gradually releasing thousands of hours of footage secretly recorded at Planned Parenthood clinics, depicts the process of procuring fetal tissue for scientific donation. The activists behind the video are clearly hoping the images will be disturbing enough to turn the tide of public opinion against the national women’s health organization.
CMP’s current campaign against Planned Parenthood has honed in on fetal tissue donation, which can provide scientists with materials to study diseases in their earliest stages. This type of donation is optional — and can be a meaningful experience for some abortion patients — and has become relatively rare in recent years thanks to advances in stem cell research. Still, according to the New York Times, some scientists have been quietly relying on fetal tissue for decades to help develop treatments for degenerative diseases.
CMP’s inflammatory videos don’t include this context about why some clinics facilitate the donation of fetal tissue. Instead, they suggest that Planned Parenthood is breaking the law by profiting from the sale of “aborted baby parts.” And the group’s latest video goes a step further by showing images of some of the fetal tissue samples in question:
Tuesday’s video also relies heavily on an interview with a procurement technician who briefly worked for a biological company that partners with some abortion clinics to collect tissue. Her account of her first day on the job reinforces CMP’s framework that Planned Parenthood is engaged in disturbing work.
“The moment I took the tweezers and put them in the dish, I remember grabbing a leg,” the former employee says. “The moment I picked it up, I could just feel like, death and pain — I’ve never felt that before — shoot up through my body and I blacked out, basically.”
For years, abortion opponents have relied on graphic descriptions and bloody imagery to make their case against legal abortion. By focusing on the fetuses, rather than on the women who seek to end a pregnancy for their own personal or financial reasons, the anti-choice movement can successfully stoke outrage over the moral implications of a medical procedure that falls squarely in a gray area for most Americans.
There’s some controversy whether it’s appropriate to widely distribute these images, which can be upsetting to some people. On one hand, some abortion opponents argue this tactic may backfire by isolating potential supporters who think gruesome imagery is particularly extreme. The president of the National Right to Life, for instance, now encourages activists to choose “softer” images of babies rather than disturbing posters of aborted fetuses. On the other hand, as one longtime proponent of a more graphic strategy recently told freelance writer Robin Marty: “The victims deserve to be seen.”
The issue has made its way through the court system. In 2013, the Supreme Court declined to overturn a Colorado ban on graphic anti-abortion images in public, a decision that people on both sides of the political aisle criticized as an imposition into free speech.
Nonetheless, accusing abortion providers of ripping apart babies’ limbs has a lot of political currency. The national controversy over so-called “partial birth abortion” — a misleading phrase coined by abortion opponents to describe a specific type of surgical abortion procedure — relied on this type of evocative language, which helped garner support for a wave of state-level bans against the practice. Eventually, “partial-birth abortion” was banned on a national level, and the restriction was upheld by the Supreme Court. This past legislative session, abortion opponents started laying the groundwork to repeat this strategy with a different type of second-trimester abortion procedure, which they have characterized as “dismemberment.” Some lawmakers claimed that Planned Parenthood is decapitating babies, making the organization worse than ISIS.
It makes sense that this works. Despite the anti-choice movement’s characterization of abortion as a black-and-white issue, it’s quite possible to both support legal abortion rights and believe that pregnant women are carrying unborn children. Even Americans who believe that abortion should be legal may be squeamish about the nature of the medical procedure, and feel uncomfortable with graphic depictions of fetal tissue.
This complicated reality about abortion can quickly put supporters of reproductive rights on the defensive. So far, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards has apologized for the cavalier tone of one official who was secretly recorded discussing fetal tissue donation in one of CMP’s videos. Meanwhile, conservative members of Congress are pushing to vote on defunding the national women’s health organization based on the “gruesome videos.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) recently said he can’t even talk about the controversy because the images make him want to throw up.