It’s gone viral, and there’s no undoing it. The hidden camera exposé of Planned Parenthood’s tiny “chop shop” side operation is one “baby” they couldn’t prevent coming to full term.

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Sit down for an hour or so, and binge watch (Netflix style) the episodes released thus far. As you listen to the casual and cavalier conversation, during what appears to be a working lunch, in which the sinister business is discussed in painfully plain detail,  you’ll get that same squirmy feeling in your gut that even most pro-choicers admit having.  There’s something about seeing a modern middle-class millennial talk about the grisly nuts and bolts of selective fetal dismemberment between bites of chicken almond salad with the feta cheese and a light vinaigrette—it gives us the creeps.

Selling Fetal Body Parts is NOT the Primary Issue

But as many people have rightly pointed out, the moral “heebee jeebees” does not constitute a sound moral argument. While it probably gives us good intuitive clues, more serious thought needs to go into our reactions to these revelations. I like a good meme as well as the next web surfer, but a meme does not a reasoned case make. A little careful mulling over of the situation should help us to distinguish the important moral questions that need to be addressed. To me these would have to include at least the following:

  • Is it morally justifiable to take the life of the being in the womb, particularly at the stage in which all of the human organs are developed and functional?
  • If it is morally justifiable, under what specific conditions is it morally justifiable (i.e. What are the specific circumstances that would justify killing the womb’s inhabitant)?
  • If in fact there are circumstances that morally justify the active taking of this being’s life, is it morally permissible to then harvest and sell the organs/parts of the being you have killed?

Note that if you say, “No” to the first question, the next two are irrelevant. If you say, “No” to the second question, the third is irrelevant. It would seem that, while the third question is certainly important, it is outranked in terms of its moral weight by the first two.

They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters[...]

So, even though it has been the selling of the organs/parts that seems to have captured the attention of everyone, the larger concern is not the selling operation but the killing operation.

The Ethics of Selling Body Parts (Including Selling Fetal Body Parts)

Let’s address the third question first. I see two distinct moral issues within the question: the transplant and the transaction, if you will.

  1. Whether it is OK for parts (usually organs) of a deceased person to be used by a living person
  2. Whether it is OK to sell the parts

The first issue seems fairly non-controversial. Nobody opposes a living person donating a kidney to his or her family member. And I don’t imagine much opposition to agreeing to let your organs be used by someone who needs them in the event of your death. Being an “organ donor” is considered to be a good thing. Unless you have a strange religious doctrine (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal of blood transfusions due to their own unique interpretation and application of the verses in the Torah forbidding eating blood), you probably have no ethical problem with an organ from a deceased person being transferred to the body of a living person.

But what if the free market included buying and selling body parts? What if this was an industry in itself? That is no doubt an unsavory proposition to many people.  There are several reasons for this, including at least these two:

  • We want to see human organs treated with a certain dignity or sacredness that doesn’t apply to other commodities. We don’t want to see them as merely products or goods.
  • More important still, the scarcity and demand for organs would result in a market in which only the very wealthy could afford them.  

A lot more could be said about this, but suffice it to say that there are some ethical concerns to be addressed regarding the business end of the transfer of human body parts or organs from the deceased to the living, specifically regarding amounts of money, who makes the money, the ever-present potential for major corruption, and the affordability of life-saving organs.

The Life and Death Questions Trump the Buying and Selling Questions

As important as the ethical concerns may be regarding the commerce and trafficking in human body tissue or organs, those concerns can never rise to the level of moral significance that life and death issues carry. Just think of the moral difference between these two questions:

  • Is it OK for me to profit from the sale of x?
  • Is it OK for me to take the life of x?

We might say that most important moral question we can ever ask takes this form: “Is there moral justification for killing a person (P) under circumstance (C)?” Consider possible stances.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3 (ESV)

Total prohibition against killing: “You may never kill any P under any C.” I don’t know of anybody who holds this, but it is theoretically possible to take this position. If you held this, you would see no justification for killing any person (P), period. No circumstance would suffice:

  • Not self-defense
  • Not in war
  • Not as a capital form of punishment
  • No “mercy killing” or assisted suicide, etc.

For most people, the differences and debates that exist on the all-important moral question about the taking of a human life are all centered on the big “C”. Almost everyone believes that it might be morally justifiable to kill a person in certain circumstances, but not everyone is in agreement as to the particulars of such circumstances. Thus are the biggest moral debates centered on the question of whether certain specific reasons/circumstances justify the taking of life: capital punishment, assisted suicide, tactics in war, self-defense.

And of course abortion is one of these. At its center is the question, which we may tailor thusly:

“Is it morally permissible for one to take the life of a human being en utero for certain specific reasons, and if so, what specific reasons can justify that act?”

Some pro-lifers say that no circumstance or reason can justify it. Some pro-choicers say that no circumstance or reason is relevant or required. The first would say you may never kill what is in the womb, period. The second would say you may always kill what is in the womb for any (or no particular) reason.

Between those two positions are a hundred others, give or take. But a survey of all of them would require more words than I am prepared to type in this blog article.

It’s Not Primarily about the Grisly Nature of the Procedure

This is not just about being squeamish regarding the grisly details of how the bodies are ripped or torn in the procedure. The cringe-worthiness of the procedure itself is not the main issue. it would be considered wrong for a woman to kill her one-hour old newborn, even if she did it very quickly and relatively painlessly for the baby. Some commentators have said in the aftermath of the videos that the moral outrage they’ve garnered is mostly the emotional reaction of people who just never before stopped to think about the actual specifics of such procedures. These commentators have even compared it to other medical procedures that would probably “gross out” common people if they saw them up close.

It is true that most of us would experience a yuck-factor of one degree or another if we saw lots of medical procedures for the first time. But so what? This misses the point entirely. I will grant that people today are fickle enough to react to moral outrages they see and forget about all of the ones they do not see. This is why video of one starving child in the third world may move more Americans to give their money than a long list of statistics about starvation. We are shallow like that and respond to the visual and immediate.

But again, so what? The main thing here remains the main thing here. Human beings residing in wombs are being killed systematically for what statistics have revealed to be overwhelmingly shallow and petty reasons. I have to give the public at least enough credit to suggest that if the details of the procedure were less graphically described, there would still be a pretty high level of moral unease, to put it mildly, with what is in those videos.

Most People Oppose the Most Common Reasons Given for Abortion

Back to the “C” in the all-important question. Under what circumstances (for what reasons) can we give moral permission for the killing of the womb’s resident?  I’ve found that when I informally poll students who identify as pro-choice and want abortion to be legal under certain circumstances, almost none of them will grant moral justification to abortion for the sake of mere convenience. They almost always outline the same circumstances they deem justifiable:

  • Rape
  • Incest
  • Preserving the life of the mother
  • A baby that has no chance to survive, etc.

While those circumstances are obviously part of the larger debate and could be hashed out one by one, note the important thing about this. Those supporting abortion think it is wrong if not for those select circumstances, and yet statistics make clear that those circumstances reflect very few abortions.  Google the studies in which they have analyzed the reasons women gave for the procedure. There is more than one for you to compare. Here is what you will find: rape and incest represent a tiny percentage (usually 1 or 2%). A few more will cite health concerns for the mother or baby.

The Most Common Reasons For Abortion

What reasons dominate the surveys? Things like this:

  • “A baby would really complicate my life right now.”
  • “This pregnancy was not intended.”
  • “I am not ready yet for the responsibility of parenthood.”
  • “I am not currently in a financial position to take care of a child.”

There are others of slightly lower percentage:

  • “My parents will not allow me to carry this child.”
  • “My husband/boyfriend does not want to have a child.”

But again, the select circumstances that the pro-choicers claim provide justification represent a tiny number of the millions of abortions performed annually. To put it another way, I can hardly find anybody who will say that he/she thinks that it is morally justifiable to kill what is in the womb for the reasons the great majority of women give for their abortions.

Back to the Point

So the question remains, staring holes in our collective social conscience: can we justify such killings for the sake of sexual liberty? Can it be merely the back-up birth control for the promiscuous? If we can’t justify it for these reasons, then the entire society (with just a few exceptions) should be opposed not just to the sale of body parts and not just to a specific method of killing, but to the killing itself, at least in the great majority of cases in which these reasons are the ones given.

What I’m seeking to convey is this: all of the attention given to the undercover videos should not throw our scent off of the main path. Sure, the buying and selling of tiny parts of human bodies seems sinister and is likely against the law. But that moral concern is outranked by the one that should remain at the top of our moral chart. This is an issue of life and death before it is an issue of business ethics. Should the minuscule beings residing in those wombs be killed? Do we have morally sufficient grounds for doing it? If so, do they include convenience or only the typical extreme cases (rape, life-threatening, etc.)? If they do not include convenience, why are we not concerned that we are paying nearly half a billion tax dollars annually for killings of beings in wombs mostly for the reasons we all profess are not morally sufficient for the taking of those lives?


Clint Roberts
Clint Roberts

Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.

    7 replies to "Selling Fetal Body Parts Is NOT the Primary Moral Issue"

    • peter

      great article. THis reminds me of the movie, The Island. “The film’s plot revolves around the struggle of Ewan McGregor’s character to fit into the highly structured world he lives in, isolated in a compound, and the series of events that unfold when he questions how truthful that world really is. After he learns that the compound inhabitants are clones who are used for organ harvesting and surrogate motherhood for wealthy people in the outside world, he escapes.”

    • Glenn Shrom

      I’ll add another comment later if it works, but for now, this is a letter to the editor that I wrote to the Reading Eagle and they published it yesterday:

      According to W.W. Norton’s American Government, the federal government often makes rules that must be obeyed as a stipulation for federal funding. If Planned Parenthood supports being able to alter their abortion procedures from what is best for women’s health to what is best for preserving certain human body parts, in violation of the Health Revitalization Act, then they should also lose federal funding.

      Law-abiding organizations can replace PP’s role as funding recipients. Hospitals can be built near PP clinics to care for the victims of botched abortions. According to the New York Times, this is what a 2013 Texas law tried to require in order for remote abortion clinics there to remain open.

      One can defend all that’s good about fetal tissue donations, but it is the health of the already born mothers, and perhaps even of already born babies, that is at stake when procedures are altered. If PP insists on the value of the practices revealed in the Center for Medical Progress videos, they should halt illegal practices immediately, then see if appropriate changes can be made to the law. Civil disobedience in this area is unsafe.

      De-funding Planned Parenthood is not a strategy to take away choice. De-funding PP won’t limit their abortion-on-demand services. According to CBS News, PP can’t use their government funding for that anyway.

    • Glenn Shrom

      National Review dot com has an excellent article called “There’s more illegality in that Planned Parenthood video than just selling body parts”, written by Mark Antonio Wright, July 17, 2015. You could also search using terms “Planned Parenthood altering procedures fetal tissue” to see more related stuff.

      Clint Roberts makes an excellent point that the reasons people feel are okay for abortion do not match the reasons most people give. Even so, there need to be common sense life-saving procedures sometimes, which I wouldn’t even really call abortions at all since a natural abortion is already in effect. Savita Halappanavar should not have died in Ireland, and some mothers should have the right to either die to save the life of their baby, or else end the life of the baby to save her own life.

      Where Clint Roberts goes wrong is to say that defunding Planned Parenthood would end their abortion on demand services. At least theoretically, since the taxpayer funding is only used on medically necessary abortions and affirmative health services, then by taking away that funding, what they’d have left would basically be only a whole lot of abortion on demand. The funding would probably go to other agencies to do the beneficial things that PP was using it for, while the detrimental things PP was doing would continue unaffected (at least theoretically unaffected) by public funding cuts.

    • Glenn Shrom

      Finally, it is an entirely different matter to decide how the right to life of the fetus or embryo should be enforced, from simply establishing that it is not right to take a human life at any stage of development (apart from due process and self-defense). Marvin Olasky published an excellent history of abortion, which shows how hard anti-abortion laws were to create and enforce when they were in place, whether in terms of practical logistics, fairness, whom to hold responsible, godly mercy, etc. Just because we know something is a sin or as serious as murder in the harm it does to God’s beloved individuals and society, doesn’t mean that we know how to transpose that knowledge to stable politics, legislation, and enforcement in a pluralistic society. It is one thing to persuade people to not abort, to live with alternatives to abortion; quite another altogether to get the government to make changes that support that goal.

    • eric

      One issue I would like to clarify Robert.
      You stated: ” And I don’t imagine much opposition to agreeing to let your organs be used by someone who needs them in the event of your death. Being an “organ donor” is considered to be a good thing.”
      Questions: 1a) When do you say he/she is DEAD? Heart stop beating? EEG = Electroencephalogram no longer show any activities? Did you know that to procure organs like heart, lungs, kidneys they have to be under GENERAL ANESTHESIA ! Why should a ” dead person” have his/her organs be procure under general anesthesia?
      Let me introduce you to : LAZARUS SYNDROME. Majority of lay people do not know that violent reactions do occur when their organs are procure by doctors. No these are NOT reflexes. That is the real REASON for General Anesthesia.
      How about people who are certified as ” brain dead” do show significant blood pressure changes and heart beat changes during operative removal of their organs! This mean parts of the brain and spinal cord is still intact! What about women who are brain dead kept ” alive” on ventilator and medications, tube feed till they give birth!
      Point: Dead or Death is a PROCESS not an EVENT.
      So I do oppose to your statement …..Yes….. for the above reasons.

    • Aaron Tomsche

      You really make it seem really easy together with your presentation but I to find this matter to be really something which I feel I might never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and very extensive for me. I am having a look ahead in your next submit, I will try to get the hang of it!

    • Lena C

      I’m going to take a guess that the author doesn’t agree with abortions. Which is fine, I’m not going to argue about that. I agree with him on his main point that the selling of fetal tissue isn’t the primary issue. What I do take issue with is his tone, particularly in the later half of the article. For example, he calls those commonly listed reasons for having an abortion “shallow.” I’ve never been pregnant, but I’m going to guess it isn’t an easy thing to go through for many people, especially those without means and without emotional support. He may not find it the most compelling of reasons, but let’s not call it shallow (and by implication call women who have an abortion for those reasons shallow). Also “it would complicate my life” can mean so many things. And then there’s this: “can we justify such killings for the sake of sexual liberty? Can it be merely the back-up birth control for the promiscuous?” This surprised me. I didn’t realize the abortion debate was about sexual liberty. I always thought it was about reproductive liberty (as well as a type of privacy debate). Sure you can’t have one without the other but there is a distinction. Also, I don’t know what defines a woman as “promiscuous” but a wide variety of women, promiscuous or not, have abortions. Perhaps I’m being to harsh on the author and perhaps I’m inferring too much, but he doesn’t seem very sympathetic to these women. But then again, that wasn’t what the article was about.

      I’m also curious where those stats cited are from.

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