The best conservative defenses of Carly Fiorina, who's under fire for fabricating a Planned Parenthood smear, have two things in common: They all stipulate that the Planned Parenthood sting footage she described on the Republican primary debate stage two weeks ago literally doesn’t exist. And they all simultaneously argue that Fiorina should get a pass for this error, because her imagery—“its heart beating, its legs kicking”—amounts to a realistic depiction of at least some aborted fetuses, before Planned Parenthood donates their organs to science.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat stipulates that “Fiorina’s critics are correct that she misdescribed the video,” before explaining that “the discrepancies between what’s in the documentary and her description aren’t wild or incredible or weird.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg allows that “the exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos,” then swivels to the justification: “anybody who has watched the videos would find Fiorina's account pretty accurate.”
Conservatives deploying arguments of this form are describing a minor misunderstanding, not the major controversy liberals allege. Yes, Fiorina blended a few details together, and misdescribed others. Yes, she should correct her errors. But the gist of what she said is right. Whether the footage was filmed in a Planned Parenthood clinic or not doesn’t matter much, because Planned Parenthood replicates the same procedures at clinics across the country. Florina’s comments were emotionally correct, if not accurate in every particular.
This is a better and more honest tack than the one taken by Fiorina supporters (including Fiorina herself) who insist she was accurate in every particular, as if calling an apple an orange could make it so. But neither argument exculpates Fiorina, nor justifies the tactics deployed by the Center for Medical Progress and their anti-abortion allies. They instead confirm to liberals that Planned Parenthood foes have adopted the tactics of noisy protestors who hold startling fetus posters aloft outside of abortion clinics and suffused them with language of scandal and crime to make them more potent. Absent evidence of criminality, Fiorina’s defenders are now clinging to the belief that the intrusive and gory nature of late-term abortion have somehow escaped abortion supporters, many of whom will change their views once the truth is widely broadcast. They are mistaken.
The abortion abolitionists who produced the sting videos, and some of their conservative media allies, claim to have uncovered evidence that Planned Parenthood undertook illegal methods to procure fetal organs, so that they could sell those organs, illegally, for profit. If that were true, Planned Parenthood would be in legal trouble. Having failed to produce evidence of criminal activity, conservatives could instead argue that the ethics of fetal tissue procurement and research in general are still wanting: That both should be more tightly regulated, or banned in cases of abortion, or that abortion clinics should have to bear the procurement costs themselves.
What they’ve done instead is initiate a political assault that aims to starve Planned Parenthood of funds, unless Planned Parenthood agrees to stop performing abortions altogether. The campaign is led by congressional Republicans intent on prohibiting government payers like Medicaid from reimbursing Planned Parenthood for non-abortion services they provide to poor women, perhaps on the threat of a government shutdown. If it seems the campaign has moved on from the intricacies and legal strictures governing fetal tissue procurement, it’s because it was never about that to begin with. It was about deploying graphic images to increase public opposition to abortion.
This isn’t even the subtext of the controversy. It’s the text of it. Douthat stands by Fiorina because they share the belief that “the process of acquiring organs from the unborn involves practices and habits that would shock the squeamishly pro-choice if they ever had to confront the reality.” The explicit aim isn’t to change these processes per se but to shock and thus convert the "squeamishly pro-choice." It’s an Operation Rescue protest in the guise of advocacy, investigative journalism, committee hearings, and New York Times columns.
The shock tactic alone is inherently limited by the fact that adult people—and women in particular—are intimately familiar with all the wonders and unpleasantnesses of human reproduction already. New York’s Rebecca Traister has explained this point with characteristic brilliance. I’ll quote at some length, but conservatives especially should read the entire article.
[W]omen already know what abortion is. We know more about blood, innards, fetuses, and the babies they may become—in short, about life in reproductive bodies—than anti-abortion activists seem to understand….
Women pass early pregnancies into toilet bowls and sadly collect the remains of later ones in Tupperware containers to bring to their doctors. Most of us know of someone who has suffered the excruciating pain of stillbirth. One friend, bleeding 13 weeks into a deeply desired pregnancy, was told by her doctor not to worry unless she passed a clot bigger than her fist…. Women know about blood. We know about discharge. We know about babies, and many of us also love them, their little feet and hands and eyelashes. And, yes, we know that those bitty features develop while the fetus is inside us.
Conservatives imagine that this is all abstraction to abortion-happy liberals, but to most real-life adults it isn’t—which makes the straightforward shock tactics deployed by many abortion protesters ineffective. False or unsupported allegations of savage criminality might be more effective, but they're also plainly dishonest. And yet, Carly Fiorina and her supporters are dressing the former up as the latter. Thus, even if you ignore her descriptive errors—that her retelling is set at a Planned Parenthood clinic when in reality it occurred elsewhere, that it includes a fabricated quote, and that it mistakes a stillborn baby for an aborted fetus—the attack line would still be troubling. It includes the implication—a slander—that Planned Parenthood is killing viable babies for profit, and employs a ghoulish description of fetal organ procurement as a sleight of hand to condemn the abortions that precede it.
If conservatives think that “shock[ing] the squeamishly pro-choice” is a good way to influence the abortion debate, they can do so without justifying the failed sting that produced the images, or the dishonest ways conservatives like Fiorina have come to talk about it. When they chose not to, it's a tacit admission that the anti-abortion movement is choosing deception over persuasion.