Planned Parenthood, Legality, and Morality

February 1, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Abortion ProtestLast July, the Center for Medical Progress began releasing a series of undercover videos cataloguing conversations between its operatives, posing as potential buyers of aborted fetal parts for a human biologics company, and high level Planned Parenthood representatives, who appeared to be willing to sell fetal parts for profit, even if that profit was minimal.  Selling fetal parts for profit is a federal offense.  Getting reimbursed for the cost of procuring and transferring fetal parts, however, is not.  Thus, there has been a protracted debate over whether or not Planned Parenthood has broken the law.

Last week, a grand jury in Houston took its shot at answering this debate.  Though the grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to indict Planned Parenthood, it did indict David Daleiden, one of the producers of the undercover videos.  Danielle Paquette, writing for The Washington Post, explains the reasoning behind the indictment:

David Daleiden, the director of the Center for Medical Progress, faces a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and a misdemeanor count related to buying human tissue.[1]

In order to gain access to a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston, Mr. Daleiden and his companion, Sandra Merritt, presented fake California driver’s licenses.  According to The Washington Post article, using fake IDs with “intent to cause harm” is a felony for which Mr. Daleiden could face anywhere from two to twenty years in prison if he is convicted.  The misdemeanor charge has to do with Mr. Daleiden’s overtures to purchase fetal parts.  According to Texas law, it is illegal, irrespective of whether or not Mr. Daleiden’s offers were genuine, to offer to pay for fetal parts.

This is a strange outcome to a sensational story.  How many cases are there where a grand jury is asked to decide whether or not it should indict one party and it winds up indicting another party?

The New York Times editorial board came out in favor of the indictment of Mr. Daleiden, writing:

One after the other, investigations of Planned Parenthood prompted by hidden-camera videos released last summer have found no evidence of wrongdoing. On Monday, a grand jury in Harris County, Tex., went a step further. Though it was convened to investigate Planned Parenthood, it indicted two members of the group that made the videos instead.

The Harris County prosecutor, Devon Anderson, a Republican who was asked by the lieutenant governor, a strident opponent of Planned Parenthood, to open the criminal investigation, said on Monday that the grand jurors had cleared Planned Parenthood of any misconduct.

Yet despite all the evidence, Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, said on Monday that the state attorney general’s office and the State Health and Human Services Commission would continue investigating Planned Parenthood. This is a purely political campaign of intimidation and persecution meant to destroy an organization whose mission to serve women’s health care needs the governor abhors.

Fortunately, in the Harris County case, the jurors considered the facts.[2]

What is most fascinating about The New York Times’ editorial is not its opinion about this case, but how it reports the facts of this case:  “One after the other, investigations of Planned Parenthood prompted by hidden-camera videos released last summer have found no evidence of wrongdoing.”  It seems as though, for The New York Times editorial board, that which is legal is coterminous with that which is moral.  Because Planned Parenthood was not found guilty of doing anything illegal, they must also not have been guilty of any, to use The New York Times’ own terminology, “wrongdoing.”

As a Christian, I have to disagree.  The first and final source and arbiter of moral activity – what is right-doing and what is wrongdoing – is not rooted in a humanly contrived legality, but in a graciously given theopneusty.

At the church where I serve, we are preaching and teaching through the book of Judges and I was reminded once again of how the Bible views and treats unborn life when I came to the story of Samson.  Samson, most famous for his strength, was also consecrated to the Lord as a Nazirite from before birth.  Being a Nazirite involved a vow to reject, among other things, any food or drink made from grapes.  When the Lord comes to Samson’s mother and announces that she will bear a deliverer for Israel, He says to her, “Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son” (Judges 13:4-5).  Notice that the Lord is concerned not only with Samson keeping his vow, but with his mother keeping his vow in his stead even before he is born.  The Lord regards the actions of Samson’s mother as his actions, knowing that her actions can affect the child in her womb not only medically – after all, refraining from “fermented drink” is sage advice for any expecting woman – but also spiritually.  Samson’s vow, then, binds him not only from the day of his birth, but from the day of his conception.  Why?  Because even in the womb, he is alive.  And his life is important to God and ought to be kept sacred for God.  The taking of any life by abortion, therefore, though it may be legal, is certainly not moral.

As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, rightly points out in his commentary on this story, what The New York Times has posited in its editorial amounts to a kind of legal positivism – a theory of law that, while being acutely concerned with societal legality, has no use for transcendent morality.  The editorial board applauds Planned Parenthood simply because its disbursement of fetal parts has been found to be purportedly legal.  The board never takes the time, however, to go beyond the legal questions and consider the intrinsic merits and morality of abortion law itself, for these considerations involve all the questions legal positivism does not care or dare to ask.  But I would argue that some of the greatest triumphs of justice over the previous century have come not because people were content with the law as it was, but because they strove for a moral standard beyond the law that, at the time, was not, but should be.  Watershed victories like women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Act happened not because editorial boards assumed that the legality of an issue was its warp and woof, but because they knew that legality must work in tandem with a higher morality.

This is not to say that there are no questions to be asked of the Center for Medical Progress.  Its action of obtaining fake IDs and having misleading conversations with Planned Parenthood officials raise not only legal concerns, but moral ones too.  There is the moral question of deceit.  Is it ever moral to lie for the sake of a just cause?  Uncovering the true and disturbing nature of what happens at Planned Parenthood clinics is certainly just, but should a person present a fake ID in order to gain access to what happens at these clinics?  Rahab told a lie to her compatriots to protect the lives of a group of Israelite spies who had come to case her city, and she is hailed as a hero of the faith in the Bible (cf. Hebrews 11:31)!  Can we not do the same?

My personal view is that though there may be an occasional extraordinary circumstance – such as trying to protect a life – where telling a lie is the lesser of two evils, this does not make lying moral, it only makes it understandable and, perhaps, reluctantly preferable.  Furthermore, I would hope that we would generally try to avoid willingly placing ourselves in situations where we would feel compelled to lie.

There is also the moral problem of the Center for Medical Progress’ violation of the law in its use of fake IDs.  Considering we are called to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), it is important to ask if it is appropriate to violate the moral law of truthfully representing one’s identity in order to bring to light the immoral practice of aborting babies and harvesting their organs for disbursement.

I would note that even as the actions of the Center for Medical Progress raise some moral questions about truthfulness and legality, Planned Parenthood’s actions raise these same moral quandaries.  By all appearances, Planned Parenthood’s desire to be less than forthcoming about its fetal tissue disbursement practices, perhaps even to the point of deceit, and the question of whether or not Planned Parenthood violated any laws in its handling of fetal organs are issues worth pursuing further.  Planned Parenthood was, at the very least, living near the edge of the law, which oftentimes leads to, at minimum, isolated instances of going outside of the law.

There are many moral questions that surround this story, but this much is morally certain:  Scripturally, putting an end to abortion and the gruesome harvesting of fetal organs for disbursement is one of the great ethical imperatives of our time.  In a story that raises many moral question marks, this should be a moral period.  This is something for which Christians must call.


[1] Danielle Paquette,“The charges against anti-Planned Parenthood filmmaker, explained,” The Washington Post (1.26.2016).

[2] The Editorial Board, “Vindication for Planned Parenthood,” The New York Times (1.26.2016).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jim Solinski  |  February 1, 2016 at 9:20 am

    Well said Pastor Zach! The outcome of the indictment was questionable at best. Basically they rewarded murder over a lie…


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