Foetuses for sale and infanticide happen in the West today
-Scott Rae talks to Peter Hastie-
Dr Scott Rae is professor of Christian Ethics and dean of the faculty at Talbot Theological Seminary at La Mirada, California, USA. His primary interests are medical ethics and business ethics, dealing with the application of Christian ethics to medicine and the marketplace. He has written 10 books in ethics including The Ethics of Commercial Surrogate Motherhood; Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics; Brave New Families: Biblical Ethics and Reproductive Technologies; Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics; and Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics.
Scott, recently there was a major exposé of a scandal in the United States involving a group called Planned Parenthood? What was it all about?
It was about the sale and commercialisation of body parts of lateterm aborted foetuses, that is, of unborn children right up until the end of the third trimester of a pregnancy. The scandal, which was captured on a secret video recording, received huge media coverage at the time and put the ethics of abortion right back in the spotlight
So who exactly is Planned Parenthood?
Planned Parenthood is by far the largest provider of abortion services in the world. It has an office – usually multiple offices – in every major metropolitan area in the United States and Canada. They are very well funded both by government and charities. Planned Parenthood is still the primary beneficiary of the United Way, which is one of the largest charitable organisations in the world – it’s similar to the Red Cross. It is a huge industry.
Although Planned Parenthood clinics don’t conduct all the abortions in the USA, they provide the lion’s share of them. As you have already pointed out, they were recently outed during an interview recorded with a hidden camera. The interview showed Planned Parenthood officials brokering the sale of organs and tissue from aborted lateterm foetuses for use on the black market.
Apparently there was more than one recording, is that right?
Yes, several interviews were recorded. I understand that the one that attracted the most interest was of the principal medical officer of Planned Parenthood, Dr Deborah Nucatola.
But when Dr Nucatola was speaking to these people on video, she was at pains to try and play down the commercialisation of it.
I know that’s what she said; however, Planned Parenthood is involved in a profitable business. Not only does the abortion industry make a lot of money but the trafficking of human tissue and organs provides considerable returns.
Why was there so much media attention?
I think what shocked many Americans was that this huge abortion agency was negotiating with a purported research institution for the sale of body parts of unborn children. Many of these children were to be deliberately killed late in their mother’s pregnancy so that researchers could obtain mature foetal tissue and organs for their experiments.
People were understandably disturbed by the callous disregard for human life that was displayed in the interviews. However, even more troubling to many viewers was the fact that an underground market for unborn human tissue and organs exists, especially because US law still prohibits the purchase and sale of organs and tissues from human persons. But the law, unfortunately, does not recognise the unborn as full human persons worthy of protection.
Large numbers of viewers were also disturbed when Planned Parenthood employees admitted they had persuaded some of the women who were carrying babies to delay the timing of their abortion to the third trimester – and then use a particular method of abortion to maximise the tissue available for sale.
For example, they admitted on camera that mature lung tissue was heavily in demand and fetched some of the highest prices. Lung tissue, of course, is some of the last tissue in the unborn child to mature. One of the problems with being born prematurely is you almost always have recurrent lung problems. So they were persuading women to wait as long as they could for the abortion so that the unborn child’s lung tissue was almost fully developed.
What use do they have for mature organs?
They obviously want these kinds of organs for direct transplant, so if they are able to harvest kidneys, for example, without damage, they could actually be used in newborns who are suffering from kidney failure. But most of it, I think, is going for research. So research into foetal development, into transplant technology, things like that.
What other changes have been introduced to the practice of abortion when it occurs late in the pregnancy?
Well, they are also altering the method of abortion in order to provide for the best tissue. This means that in some cases they will do a C-section instead of a curettage or dismemberment, which adds considerably more risk to the pregnant woman. Twenty years ago, advocates of foetal tissue transplants told us that there were two moral principles that were absolutely non-negotiable with respect to this procedure: first, foetal tissue would not be available for purchase on the open market, and, second, women would never be pressured to change the timing and manner of their abortion to maximise the harvest of mature tissue. Both of those assurances have just gone out the window with this recent exposé. It is a chilling set of videos.
Why have the media not pursued this video more vigorously? One of the big news agencies said that it was just an anti-abortion group releasing a video showing a Planned Parenthood official discussing disposal of foetal remains. Is that what it was?
No, definitely not! It’s far more serious than that. The video showed that the Planned Parenthood employees were discussing the black market sale of foetal remains. There is no evidence that the videos were doctored at all. I think Planned Parenthood recognised that they got a terrible black eye out of this – and, I might add, a well-deserved black eye. We should thank God that social media got the word out on this. There have been some religious news services that have made this very public too.
In the American media it did come out, it was given press – but not as aggressively as it should have been. Had it been a pro-life group involved in the blackmarketeering of human body parts, they would have been crucified. I think this just illustrates the overwhelming proabortion, pro-choice bias in the American media. I don’t think it’s any different here in Australia, or Canada, for that matter. The media simply did not want to do anything that was going to tarnish the image of Planned Parenthood.
Are US legislators likely to act on this now that they have video evidence of trafficking in foetal tissue and body parts?
I don’t think US legislators have sufficient moral will to act. I suspect that the only way that Planned Parenthood could be defunded is if women started experiencing major complications or dying as a result of procedures in its clinics.
The major providers of abortion like to represent it as a safe medical procedure on a par with other medical facilities. Is this true in the United States?
It may be true in some facilities but not all. There has been a big case in Philadelphia in more recent times involving a doctor, Kermit Gosnell.
Gosnell ran an abortion clinic in inner city Philadelphia. He used unsterile instruments and performed callous late term abortion practices where – even if the baby was outside the womb – he would just snip the spinal cord and the baby died.
It was not until a grand jury in Philadelphia compelled many of the staff to give evidence about his practice that the gruesome details emerged. Their testimony was enough to turn your stomach. In fact, the attorney general of Pennsylvania said, “Believe it or not, Pennsylvania is not a third world country. Despite what it looks like in this clinic, we are not a third world country, and we’re going to prosecute this case so that we do not become one.”
Perhaps the most revealing detail to emerge in the Gosnell case is that his staff admitted before a grand jury that he practised infanticide. Their testimony was chilling. He was charged with seven counts of infanticide, but the staff admitted that there were many more. He was also charged with one count of manslaughter, because a pregnant woman died through his negligence. The ironic thing is that while he fully understood the manslaughter charge, he professed ignorance as to why he was charged with infanticide.
I think, in one sense, he was actually being completely consistent with the logic of abortion advocates. As you may know, they claim that birth provides no morally relevant distinction. It is simply a change of location. They say there is nothing magical that happens at birth, except that the baby has a different dependency relationship to the mother. “Ask any woman,” they say, “who has nursed a newborn – there is only a very slight degree of difference in dependence on the mother.” Unfortunately, they have drawn the conclusion that if abortion is somehow legal, then infanticide should be too.
Very few abortion rights activists have the stomach to go all the way with that. People like Peter Singer are still on the fringe, but infanticide is slowly getting more academic respectability than it used to. In the developing world, of course, infanticide has been practised for decades and decades, particularly with young girls. But now it is being practised in developed countries as well.
Scott, can you help us understand how we should determine the status of an embryo and the developing unborn child? What are the physiological and theological issues that we need to consider in all of this?
It’s hard to put in a 30-second sound bite. Embryos are full human persons at a very early stage of maturity. They become full human persons when conception is completed. It is a little misleading, I think, to speak of conception as a point in time. It is more like a 12-hour process. At the end of that, when the chromosomes have settled and the embryo begins to divide and multiply, and metabolic activity is going on, then you have a full human person – just at a very early stage of maturity.
I think the way we talk about this is important, because it is not quite accurate to say that foetuses are embryos that developed into foetuses, or become foetuses. I think, rather, we are better off to say embryos mature into foetuses, they mature into what they already are.
So embryos – from the first single-celled embryo – have all the capacities they need to mature into a full adult human being, as long as they are given proper shelter, nutrition, and otherwise left alone. Modern culture wants to define when we become a person by our ability to perform a particular set of functions, such as self-awareness, self-consciousness, awareness of our environment – really elementary types of functions.
The difficulty with those kinds of criteria is that we lose some of these abilities at some stage in our lives. So something like general anaesthesia can leave us without the ability (if it is done correctly) to perform any of those functions, yet we insist that those functions when someone is under anaesthesia are irrelevant to his or her standing as a person.
So I think theologically, we want to suggest that – although the Scripture does not have any categories or language for embryos that are not yet outside the womb – we do know from the account of Jesus’ incarnation that from the very earliest stages of Mary’s pregnancy, an image-of-God bearing person was recognised. I would say somewhere from five to seven days after conception we have the celebration of the announcement of Jesus’ conception. There is just as much fanfare in the Gospel account of the Messiah coming at Jesus’ conception as there was at His birth. In fact, there is probably a little more so at the conception of Jesus. Mary could not have been more than about seven days from conception at most. So at the time when the celebration of Jesus’ conception was taking place, that is roughly the same time period in which we harvest stem cells from human embryos today.
Given all the modern forms of contraception available today, why do we need abortion? Is it being practised at significant rates?
Yes, at least in the Western world the incidence of abortion has not diminished. In the US, it is still roughly 900,000 to 1,000,000 abortions a year.
The technology has been a mixed blessing. It is true we have better contraceptive technology today. It is also true that we have better abortion technology as well, that enables doctors to perform abortions in the late second and third trimesters. I think these late term abortions should properly be classified as infanticide, because in most cases the baby is delivered breech with the feet first. There are only about six inches at most of the head of the child that is still technically in the womb, which makes it technically still an unborn child, or a foetus. Most of the late term abortions then either snip the spinal cord, or suck the brain tissue out while the head is still in the womb.
In my view, if the public actually knew what kind of procedures were involved in late-term abortions they would be sick to their stomachs and would demand that they be prohibited.
Does the child have any feeling when this is happening?
Oh yes, the child feels everything.
So a child can actually experience intense pain?
Yes. The neurological system is very well developed by that time. The primitive streak that becomes the spinal cord is there at about two weeks gestation, and the first brain activity is usually detected around 40 days gestation.
Is there any sign of foetal distress or terror when all this is taking place?
We know from watching terminations on ultra-sound that even when early term abortions are done the baby will sometimes cringe or shy away from the instruments. Babies no doubt sense that they are a threat. The late term abortions, unless they are done by saline injection, which is a way of poisoning the baby to death, must inflict significant pain. After all, the baby has a developed neurological system so the pain would be intense. To the best of my knowledge, there is no attempt to give anaesthesia to late-term foetuses.
Abortion is often referred to in fairly benign terms as “family planning”. Is that what it is?
People use euphemisms all the time to obscure the dark side of what they are doing. “Family planning” is a classic case in point. The term can refer to sexselection abortion. If you discover that the unborn baby is a girl and you want a boy, you can abort the child. It’s “family planning”. Of course, this is nothing short of infanticide and is the dirty little secret of the abortion industry, here in Australia and in North America.
Peter Hastie is the principal of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne.