The Ethics of Planned Parenthood

Posted on February 15, 2011


Michelle Malkin, as part of the latest teabagger campaign to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood, wrote this article about why they are morally repulsive and should not be funded by taxpayers and blah blah blah. She brings up what I’m sure she thinks to be an overwhelming amount of hard journalistic evidence in favour of her thesis, but most of the anecdotes she uses can be reduced to one of two recurrent themes:

1) Hidden camera investigations show Planned Parenthood receptionists breaking the law.

2) Botched abortions have occurred at Planned Parenthood clinics, resulting in considerable injury.

I’m going to break with tradition and answer the second first, because it is much easier to dismiss. Any sane person would consider the incidents cited by Malkin (I won’t repeat them here) to be incredibly tragic, and that is precisely the problem. This part of Malkin’s argument is an obvious appeal to emotion and therefore a fallacy. Sometimes mistakes are made during abortions, and sometimes these mistakes have horrible, horrible consequences. But that is no different from any other medical procedure, and yet we don’t shut down hospitals because one of their doctors loses a malpractice suit. The only way that this behaviour would be in any way unethical is if the patients are not properly informed of the risks of the procedure. De-funding Planned Parenthood because sometimes people die at their clinics would be like de-funding the police because sometimes they arrest the wrong person, or de-funding the school system because sometimes teachers get their history facts wrong.*

The second (first) point against Planned Parenthood is much more difficult to answer. An independent pro-life journalist organization called Live Action carried out a few undercover investigations at Planned Parenthood clinic. According to Malkin,

“Live Action is a California-based “new media, investigative and educational organization committed to the protection and respect of all human life” led by Internet undercover pioneer Lila Rose. The group’s latest video footage at abortion clinics in Perth Amboy, N.J., the Bronx and four cities in Virginia shows Planned Parenthood officials aiding and abetting individuals posing as criminal sex traffickers seeking abortions for underage girls.”

Aiding and abetting is a slight overstatement. What the videos depict is a receptionist helping a man posing as a pimp to conceal his relationship with the underage sex worker he is bringing in for STD screening, so that the clinic staff would not have to report him to the authorities. Another video, not mentioned in Malkin’s column, shows a twenty-three year old man bringing a fourteen year old girl in for an abortion, and being told to “just pick an age that works” on the paperwork. Both of these videos, as well as the others on Live Action’s site, the are basically variations on the same theme: A Planned Parenthood receptionist helps a sexually abusive man get help for his young victim without exposing himself to prosecution, despite the fact that they are obligated by law to report these occurrences. Cue the moral outrage.

This kind of moral outrage is quite common among social conservatives. It centers on the fallacious idea that the best way to solve complicated social problems is to punish somebody. This is understandable; I can’t say I’m particularly happy to see the kind of person who will take advantage of a 14 year old girl walking free. But the welfare of the victim is far more important than the satisfaction of our collective desire for revenge, and it’s not entirely clear that the welfare of the victim is best served by punishing their victimizer.

In the first video, the receptionist might have called the police the second that she realized that the woman was a sex worker, and her pimp would have been promptly arrested. Unfortunately, there would have been unintended consequences. As soon as he realized that he was at risk of arrest, the pimp would probably flee, likely taking the girl with him. The result would be that she would be denied access to STD testing-an outcome that nobody wants. Even if he were arrested, there is no reason to think that she would be automatically whisked away to a happy, healthy life with a loving family in the suburbs. Even if she did not wind up in jail herself, there’s a good chance that the circumstances that drove her into sex work had more to do with her social and economic circumstances than the actions of her abuser. So alerting the authorities would not necessarily save her. By facilitating her STD testing, however, the receptionist was at least not making a bad situation worse by denying her access to a vital medical service.

The second scenario presents a similar problem. It would be great to see the twenty-three year old abuser of a fourteen year old girl thrown in jail, but reporting the crime will not automatically lead to this. There will first have to be a lengthy trial, in which the young victim will have her name dragged through the mud. Refusal to grant her access to an abortion would also potentially force her to raise the child of her abuser for the next eighteen or more years. Allowing her to get an abortion with some discretion, on the other hand, gives her a much better chance to leave the abuse behind.

I’m not necessarily saying that the receptionists made the right call.  I’m simply saying that all of the scenarios concocted by the undercover activists present ethical dilemmas worthy of a third-year philosophy exam. The comic-book ethics apparently supported by Malkin generally doesn’t do very well on philosophy exams. I wouldn’t condemn the receptionist for making either of the two available choices. It would be great to see girls like these ones rescued and their abusers punished, but I’m not convinced that a Planned Parenthood receptionist is in any position to make this happen without causing significant collateral damage.

So Malkin and the intrepid undercover journalists she draws on don’t really bring anything new to the table. The choices of the receptionists in the undercover videos are understandable, and the fact that people die due to malpractice at Planned Parenthood clinics is either a poor reflection on individual doctors, or a simple case of terrible circumstances. Neither of these two pieces of evidence does anything to discredit the organization. Their goal, of course was never entirely to put an end to such tragedies. They’re interested in restricting access to abortion. That being their goal, they should at least be honest about it, rather than concealing their true intentions behind feigned concern for the victims of sexual abuse.

*In my high school philosophy class, I was taught that Nietzsche was a nihilist.