Science and Morality in the Planned Parenthood Scandal

 baby hand in parent hand

By now, almost everyone who isn’t a Democratic United States Senator has seen at least one of the five macabre videotapes released by the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life investigative group. The videos are ubiquitous in social media, so I won’t provide links to them here.

In a recent post, AJC columnist Jay Bookman has provided a nice example of the arguments offered by those who continue to defend Planned Parenthood in the face of these—to say the least—embarrassing revelations. Here are his five points, together with my responses.

1. Nothing in the tapes provides evidence of illegal, let alone criminal, behavior. Planned Parenthood is allowed by law to recover its costs in collecting, preserving and transporting that tissue, and there is no evidence it violated that law. Tellingly, and despite the melodramatic complaints of conservatives, the videos have so far resulted in no criminal investigation or prosecution by state or federal authorities. Yelling and the beating of chests doesn’t alter that basic fact. Fabricated outrage doesn’t change that. Simply put, in legal terms there is no “there” there.

Not so fast, Mr. Bookman. The Planned Parenthood representatives are indeed cagey and circumspect and there is, to be sure, no straightforward smoking gun, but like all bureaucrats, they seem to know that there are expenses and then there are expenses. It may take a lot of trouble to untangle what’s a genuine “cost” and what amounts to a profit over and above costs. That the Department of Justice or a federal prosecutor hasn’t yet commenced an investigation doesn’t mean that the DOJ or a D.A. won’t, though given the track record of this Administration with respect to abortion, I’m not holding my breath. A real federal investigation may have to await a new Administration, or a Congressional investigation that forces the current Attorney General’s hand. So there is nothing at all “telling” about the lack of federal action so far. And if I’m not mistaken, at least twelve states have commenced investigations.

2. The law making such research legal was passed in 1993, and among those voting in favor of that bill was one Mitch McConnell, the same man who now claims that videos documenting what he voted to make legal “absolutely shock the conscience.” Other current GOP senators who backed that ’93 law were Richard Shelby, John McCain, Dan Coats, Chuck Grassley, Thad Cochran and Orrin Hatch, many of whom are now backing a shutdown.

Even if the research is authorized by law, it’s one thing to consider that research in the abstract, another altogether to confront graphically what it means and requires (the dissection of a recognizably human body). Perhaps the law needs to be changed. And even if we decide not to change the law that permits the research, there’s no reason why we have to fund either it or the organization that provides the human organs on which the researchers work.

3. Those receiving the fetal tissue are not ghouls of some sort, and the tissue is not being put to inappropriate or disrespectful use.  To the contrary, the tissue is crucial to research into treatments to extend and improve human life, research that would be impossible to conduct without that material. As the New York Times reports, “the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on research using fetal tissue in 2014 with grants to more than 50 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Yale and the University of California in Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.”

While we aren’t necessarily talking about Dr. Josef Mengele here, why must we assume a congruence between the demands of science and “democratic” morality? A careful reading of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis—the great work on science and politics written by the greatest and most perspicuous thinker on that subject—makes it clear enough for anyone who has eyes to see that there’s a pretty significant disconnect between science and ordinary morality. Curiosity and the ambition to master nature can take one pretty far from what’s decent and respectful. The more powerful science is, the greater mastery of nature it promises us, the more attention we must pay to it and the less we should avert our eyes from its practices. There may be benefits—which, by the way, are at the moment for the most part simply speculative—that aren’t worth the cost.

4. All tissue used in that research is donated by clinic patients, who receive no compensation for doing so. Their sole motive is to help fellow human beings. If we ban the use of such material in research, we accomplish absolutely nothing except to halt that potentially life-saving research. So which is the true “pro-life” position?

As C.S. Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, there’s a moral cost in treating human beings as meat, or of denying the humanity of a being that is recognizably human. In so doing, we run the palpable risk of dehumanizing ourselves, of numbing our moral sense. Indeed, Lewis’s work ought to be absolutely required reading for anyone who wishes to comment intelligently on these issues.

5. None of the $500 million in federal funding going to Planned Parenthood is used to finance abortions. It is used instead to give low-income women access to contraceptives, maternity care, breast-cancer and ovarian-cancer screenings, and vaccinations against sexually transmitted diseases. If we strip Planned Parenthood of funding for such programs as punishment for the “crime” of following the law and providing tissue for medical research, no other organization has the infrastructure, personnel and training to provide those health-care services. In effect, those women and their children would be the innocent victims of a successful effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

While there may not be a single national organization capable of picking up the slack of PPFA’s arguably overstated non-abortion business, the federal funding that it receives can be put to precisely the same use by a myriad of community health centers and nonprofits in the health, not the abortion, business all over the country. Indeed, the proposed Senate bill preserves every penny of women’s health funding, mandating simply that it go to health clinics, not abortion clinics.

I’ve mentioned two pieces of what I regard as required background reading. Let me close with a third, Dr. Leon Kass’ classic, “The Wisdom of Repugnance”:

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted-though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.

Religious Freedom in a New Age

 Photo - Man in Stone Church

On July 25th, AJC columnist Jay Bookman dismissed Georgia House Speaker David Ralston’s “Pastor Protection Bill” as an essentially meaningless symbolic gesture. I’m uncharacteristically inclined to agree with him.

In its current form the bill simply states that “[n]o minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to solemnize marriages according to the usages of the denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion.” This would seem to follow pretty directly from the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, as University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber has observed.

While I’m not averse to symbolism and, indeed, regard it as an important teaching function of the law, the prospect that pastors will actually be compelled to perform same-sex marriages is a remote one. To be sure, in our current circumstances anything is possible, but that’s not one of the pressing concerns keeping me up at night.

Here are the things that, to my mind, are causes of concern:

  • The tax-exempt status of churches and other faith-based institutions that remain faithful to the traditional understanding of marriage
  • The eligibility of faith-based institutions (above all, schools, universities, and social service agencies) to compete on a level playing field for government funding if they continue to act in accordance with their long-held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman
  • The ability of churches and other faith-based institutions—if they so choose—to demand doctrinal and behavioral conformity, not just of ministers, but of all employees

In a nutshell, I’m concerned that we’re facing a significant challenge to the ability of churches and other faith-based institutions to remain theologically and morally faithful while fully and equally participating in civil society.

And before I discuss these substantive concerns in a bit more detail, let me add a procedural worry. I fear that Speaker Ralston and many other Republicans, having been chastened by the religious freedom contretemps earlier this year in Indiana, Georgia, and elsewhere, will regard this pastor protection legislation as all they need to do. If true friends of religious liberty accept this down payment on a robust commitment to our first freedom as the full price, they will have left our religious institutions vulnerable to all sorts of threats. I recognize that some of my concerns will have to be addressed at the federal level by something like the First Amendment Defense Act, but there is no reason why Georgia could not provide similar protections at the state level. And I also recognize that laws are mere parchment barriers, weaker than constitutional provisions (which may themselves be no more than papier-mâché); neither will protect religious liberty from a public (or an elite) that has grown indifferent or hostile to it.

I turn now to the challenges, beginning with tax-exempt status. During the oral arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli conceded to Justice Samuel Alito that the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that uphold the traditional understanding of marriage is “certainly going to be an issue.” The dissenters took note of this exchange. Chief Justice John Roberts said this:

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage.… There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court.

Justice Clarence Thomas seconded this concern:

Numerous amici—even some not supporting the States—have cautioned the Court that its decision here will “have unavoidable and wide-ranging implications for religious liberty.” … In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well…. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.

Justice Samuel Alito spoke of the larger consequences of the Court’s decision:

Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences.

It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women …   The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.

Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected.…   We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

Let me emphasize this last point, for it is a clear allusion to the context of Justice Alito’s exchange with the Solicitor General, which involved the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the IRS’s revocation of the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University over its policy forbidding interracial dating. If the analogy—insisted upon by the Court’s majority—between opposition to same-sex marriage and opposition to interracial marriage holds, then the former amounts to the same sort of bigotry as the latter and, perhaps, deserves the same legal treatment.

In the Bob Jones case, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause does not protect the University from the IRS’s revocation of its tax exempt status. The Court’s reasoning was that, in the first place, tax exempt status is granted under the Internal Revenue Code only to institutions and organizations that “serve a public purpose” and are not “contrary to established public policy.” While the University might well serve a public purpose, augmenting or supplanting public efforts at higher education, its practice of racial discrimination was certainly contrary to established public policy. And if free exercise claims, in the best instance, require strict scrutiny, overcoming racial discrimination is surely the kind of compelling state interest that justifies an abridgement of that right.

It doesn’t require much imagination or legal expertise to see how this line of reasoning could be applied to churches and other faith-based institutions that act “contrary to established public policy” in upholding the traditional understanding of marriage.

This doesn’t mean that the IRS must or will revoke their tax exempt status, only that it can, and that the First Amendment provides no sure defense against that action. If countering discrimination based on sexual orientation comes to be regarded as a compelling state interest, then the free exercise rights of religious institutions will likely have to give way if the IRS bows to the pressure that will surely be brought to bear on it to use its powers for that end.

I think that a case can be made on behalf of continuing to extend those exemptions, both in terms of the manifold human needs all churches address and in terms of preserving the pluralism that is the essential ground of free institutions and a free people, but we have to make that case over and over again, in the face of a faction that isn’t particularly interested in listening to it. I take some solace from the fact, that, at the moment, public opinion seems to favor religious freedom, but that delicate flower needs to be carefully cultivated.

Now, if tax exemptions are a problem, then you know eligibility for government grants will be. To be sure, this isn’t an issue for houses of worship as houses of worship (which, generally speaking are not and should not be eligible for government grants), but it is one for schools and colleges, as well as for social service agencies. While the Supreme Court has frequently upheld the channeling of government aid to religious institutions under certain circumstances (see, for example, Mitchell v. Helms, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, and the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization case), it has also held that governments are perfectly within their rights to deny otherwise generally available aid and facilities to religious organizations (see, for example, Locke v. Davey and CLS v. Martinez).

Governments can attach any number of conditions to the aid they provide. Adoption agencies may be required to place children with couples without regard to the gender of the partners. Universities may be required to provide housing—if they provide it at all—to couples that are married in the eyes of the state, regardless of whether those marriages have the sanction of the sponsoring religious body. And if you put the recent EEOC ruling on sexual orientation together with the way in which the Department of Education is interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, it’s pretty easy to see how a lot of government money could be riding on conformity with what appears to be the new normal in regard to sexual orientation and marriage.

For higher education institutions, access to government money is a big deal. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, 55% of spending on undergraduate education in 2009-10 came from federal aid (which amounted to $124 billion that year). While there are a few colleges (Hillsdale and Grove City, for example) that take pride in not accepting a dime of federal money, most would at the moment not be able to survive without it.

Again, this doesn’t have to happen. Congress could pass legislation that protects religious freedom, or agencies could voluntarily refrain from impinging on it. But pressure will be brought to bear on behalf of those who, as they would put it, don’t want to subsidize discrimination.

This brings me to my next concern, the religious hiring rights of churches and faith-based organizations. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act permits them to take religion into account when hiring. And the “ministerial exception” based in the First Amendment—recently vindicated in the Hosanna-Tabor case—means that a number of federal laws granting employees enforceable rights cannot be applied to those a church holds out as ministers. But these provisions do not provide comprehensive protection of religious hiring rights. There is certainly a gap between the legislatively-acknowledged right to hire coreligionists and the constitutionally-grounded ministerial exception. What if someone who signs a statement of faith as a condition of employment comes out as gay and/or enters into a same-sex marriage? Unlike the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the recent EEOC ruling about sexual orientation discrimination does not contain exceptions for religious organizations. It isn’t at all clear that Courts will find that the Free Exercise Clause will protect them from EEOC complaints, in the event that these organizations choose to enforce doctrinal or behavioral requirements on their employees.

Now, this parade of horribles does not have to march into our sanctuaries. The threats that loom on the horizon do not have to materialize. Those who currently hold the upper hand in government may practice forbearance, either out of a genuine commitment to pluralism and religious freedom or out a fear of overplaying their hand and alienating public opinion.

We on our part must be both vigilant and winsome, vigorously defending and advocating for our rights when they are threatened and offering a model of the charity and forbearance that we hope others will also display. Our society is pluralistic, reflecting deep disagreements about how we ought to live. History teaches us that faith doesn’t require hegemony to prosper. But it does require that those who have it live it, loving their neighbors as themselves. There is room both for political and legal action, and for the building and maintenance of personal relationships. If we forgo the former, there may be no room for the latter. If we focus on the former, we run the risk that those parchment barriers will be swept away by the animosity we have done nothing to disarm and dispel.