The battle over a proposed sale of American evangelism’s ‘Missions Pentagon’ raises questions of missionary strategy and nonprofit accountability. What responsibility do ministries have to their founder’s vision—and to those who sacrificed to fund it?
Abortionists kill babies. They sell baby brains, hearts, livers, kidneys, and other body parts. They eat, drink, and joke about it.
No, let’s rewrite that: “Planned Parenthood medical personnel terminate pregnancies. They then perform a public service by making available for scientific research fetal organs otherwise heading to landfills. They work so hard that they have to seize time in restaurants to make sure those parts find their highest and best use.”
Which description is best? Before last year many Americans would have gone with No. 2. Six months ago some opinions changed as The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) began putting online, week by week, videotaped interviews with Planned Parenthood officials that looked a lot more like the first description than the second.
Half a year later, though, pro-lifers who exulted seem like latter-day biblical Leahs: She thought each new son she bore would make her husband, Jacob, love her, but his heart was set on Rachel. Last year abortion supporters typically ignored inconvenient facts, much as they did in 2011 when a jury found Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell guilty of murder.
Furthermore, most Americans did not view the CMP videos, and many barely heard of them. During one two-week period after the initial videos emerged, ABC, CBS, and NBC gave nearly three times more attention to the death of Cecil the Lion, shot by dentist Walter Palmer in Africa, than to the selling of organs from a few of the nearly 60 million unborn children aborted since 1973.
That’s according to the Media Research Center, which along with showing the 30-minute to 11-minute disparity also documented the prompts network anchors gave viewers. NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt noted “anger” and “outcry” over the lion’s death. ABC World News Tonight host David Muir stressed “outrage.” CBS This Morning upped the ante to “worldwide outrage.”
While any criticism of abortionists prompted concern for their physical protection, few seemed alarmed when British journalist Piers Morgan said, “I will sell tickets for $50,000 to anyone who wants to come with me and track down fat, greedy, selfish, murderous businessmen like Dr. Palmer. Then we’d calmly walk over, skin him alive, cut his head from his neck, and took [sic] a bunch of photos of us all grinning inanely at his quivering flesh.”
The relative ignoring of CMP’s work meant that after three months of weekly videotape releases, Rasmussen Reports found attitudes toward Planned Parenthood largely unchanged. Some 53 percent of likely U.S. voters retained a favorable opinion of Planned Parenthood, and 42 percent viewed it unfavorably. Polarization, though, was increasing: Slightly more than half of those on the “favorable” side were very favorable, but three-fourths of the “unfavorables” were very unfavorable.
Another sign of polarization came in September when Amelia Bonow and Jezebel journalist Lindy West started #ShoutYourAbortion. Aborting women have generally been reluctant to speak of their experience; but Bonow said, “Having an abortion made me happy,” and West tweeted, “My abortion was in ’10 & the career I’ve built since then fulfills me.”
Hundreds of women added their sentiments. The most common message was along these lines: “I respected my life, relationship & body enough to do what was right for me.” West even became a denier of ultrasound appearance and scientific evidence: “It is a fact without caveat that a fetus is not a person. I own my body and I decide what I allow to grow in it.” She argued: “There’s a reason why #ShoutYourAbortion has been getting mountains of positive, mainstream press attention. … It’s because we are right.”
That is West’s explanation, but we shouldn’t be so surprised by the popularity of abortion among believers in the “do what’s right for me” ethos: Sacrificing babies to win favor from gods of power and sex has been customary in most societies for which we have records.
EDGAR ALLAN POE WROTE IN 1845 about “the glory that was Greece,” but child sacrifice fills its mythology and history. Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphigenia to obtain fair winds for sailing to Troy. Aristodemus of Messenia sacrificed his daughter to stop a plague. Leos of Athens slaughtered his three daughters after the Oracle at Delphi said human sacrifices would stop a famine. This was part of exchange religion, the most common of man’s devices: You give something valuable to a deity, the deity pays you back.
Other European lands from Rome to Sweden also saw child sacrifice, as did China, India, New Guinea, and Australia. Egyptian mothers were supposed to shout out their pride when holy crocodiles devoured their children. An Algerian inscription from around A.D. 200 reads, “Prosperity and salvation! To the holy lord Saturn a great nocturnal sacrifice—breath for breath, blood for blood, life for life.” In the Western Hemisphere, Aztecs killed children, often as an offering to the rain god Tlaloc, and Incas sacrificed children in a ritual called capacocha.
Excavations at Carthage, a Baal-worshipping Phoenician colony founded around 750 B.C., have found hundreds of urns filled with charred bones of small children and animals. Carthaginians probably filled up 20,000 urns in that way from 400 B.C. until Rome destroyed their city in 148 B.C., with the percentage of infant bones versus animal bones increasing as time went on and the increasingly desperate Carthaginians upped their investment in death. One account from the time describes drums and fifes drowning out shrieks, much as situation comedies now distract us from considering abortion.
In the ancient Middle East, Ammonites sacrificed children to Molech, and Canaanites, Nabateans, Edomites, and Sepharvites also “burned their children in the fire” as an offering to their gods. Psalm 106 describes how even some Israelites “sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.”
The prophet Micah in the eighth century B.C. asked, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Most people would have called that a dumb question: The answer obviously was yes. Micah, though, gave the biblical response: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jeremiah and Ezekiel were furious when even kings in Judah’s declining years tried to exchange what was or should have been of greatest value to them, their children, in return for safety and prosperity. Ahaz “burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” Manasseh doubled the stakes: He “burned his sons as an offering.”
Today, abortion to save the life of the mother is very rare, and even a survey by the Planned Parenthood–created Guttmacher Institute found only 1 percent of abortions connected to rape or incest. Some abortions arise out of poverty, and at least 2,000 pregnancy resource centers around the country try to make that not a dominant consideration. Many abortions come because young moms in crisis hope to imitate #ShoutYourAbortion Lindy West’s upward mobility: Abortion in 2010, fulfilling career in 2015.
Surely we don’t throw babies into the fire so that by giving something precious to Molech he’ll give something to us—do we? No, not Molech as such, but shortly after God gave Moses 10 commandments he offered an 11th: You shall not make for yourselves gods of silver and gold.
AUSTIN, TEXAS—“blowing away every other big city in population growth,” according to a Slate headline—is a boomtown for worshippers of silver, gold, and sun. Ambitious teens from all over Texas come to The University of Texas and often stay. High-tech wizards make fortunes on Silicon Prairie. Planned Parenthood has three sites in Austin, and this past October the Austin City Council voted 8-2 to have Austin taxpayers fund lobbyists at the state and federal levels who would “support any legislation that would maintain or expand funding for Planned Parenthood” and “oppose any legislation that would reduce funding for Planned Parenthood.”
WORLD correspondents talked with several dozen students on The University of Texas campus. Economics major Alexander Chase walked his bicycle up a hill and said many students were sexually active but without a lot of disposable cash (or disposable time to learn about medical systems), so “Planned Parenthood is something we care about.” He thought students “unanimously” believed the CMP tapes to be doctored beyond recognition: “Loud voices against something [give] you more of a reason to push back and support something that you know is good.”
At the Longhorns football practice, sounds of smacking shoulder pads and hip-hop music filled the background as Trey Schmidt, a sophomore studying sports management, angled toward the field to take his position as a team videographer. He had not seen the Planned Parenthood videos or looked into the “Planned Parenthood stuff.” Nor had many other students, but the typical assumption was that Planned Parenthood is a good organization and would not have done anything improper.
Others, like music major Susan, argued that Planned Parenthood provides birth control, Pap smears, and STD testing, so the federal government should continue to fund it.
Some students said that as long as Planned Parenthood was selling body parts to find cures for diseases, they wouldn’t object. Sophomore Jamie Whelan, unsure about her view of abortion, saw the videos, talked with her parents, and initially turned toward a pro-life position—yet after talking with a friend who uses Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services, Whelan said she was neutral.
The verdict wasn’t unanimous. Nutrition science major Emily Rodriguez said she hadn’t seen the videos but would find them “horrific,” assuming they are legitimate. The senior reticently leans pro-life and wouldn’t mind saying so to her pro-choice friends—but the subject doesn’t come up much. Senior Jeannette Ilongo, manning a sidewalk booth for Kairos Christian Fellowship, wasn’t familiar with Planned Parenthood. She had told her sociology class that she opposes abortion because of her biblical values, and said since then “no one has come up to me to talk about it.”
At Austin’s 11-mile hike-and-bike trail that attracts 1.5 million annual visitors and parallels a river close to downtown, sentiment also favored Planned Parenthood. Libby and Christanna, both in their 20s, were walking small barking dogs. Both had heard much about Cecil the Lion. Both supported abortion availability and were not familiar with the tapes. Richard Springer, a young professional in a black shirt and visor preparing for an afternoon run, said the videos did not change his level of support for Planned Parenthood: He still liked the organization.
Just down the trail Suzanna, in her early 30s, said fetal-part selling did not really happen: “It makes me feel despair that people are so opposed to Planned Parenthood they will put out false information.” Her friend Angie, wearing a T-shirt and a Chicago Cubs visor, knew of Cecil the Lion, whose death she called “just wrong and so real. It shows how stupid our society is, focused on trophy killings.” She then spoke about Neville, a dog who might be euthanized, and said his story had led her to donate to Austin Pets Alive: “It’s just awful.”
Other views exhibited some diversity. Hal Dantone, a retired grandfather who volunteers with World Vision, said he did not strongly object to Planned Parenthood before seeing the videos; but after seeing them, he thought the organization should not receive government funding. Jackie McAllister, in her 50s, stated emphatically that Planned Parenthood did not have the right to sell the parts of an aborted baby: “They don’t own it.”
Jenny, in her 20s and wearing running shorts and a tank top, said, “I heard about the lion. That was so sad. I maybe heard about the Planned Parenthood videos, but I’m not sure.” But Alex, also in his 20s and walking a dog, said television networks had blown the Cecil story “way out of proportion. The Planned Parenthood story is a much bigger issue and got much less coverage.” Alex identified himself as a Christian.
SOME NATIONAL PRO-LIFE LEADERS accentuate the positives arising from the CMP videos.
Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, called the video release a “pinnacle moment” that pushed Americans to “look at something we have very decidedly looked away from for 40 years: the humanity of the unborn child.” She said they showed the “monetary worth” of unborn children that arises because they are human. Yoest also said the videos were boosting attempts through state legislation to protect unborn children and could cause legal problems for Planned Parenthood.
Gregg Cunningham, who directs the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and has been trying for 25 years to wake up college students by showing graphic abortion photos on campuses, said the videos shifted “the debate from the abstract (freedom of choice) to something concrete: a horrifying act that kills a baby.” Students for Life of America national director Kristan Hawkins said, “The scandal has cleared the way for us.” Some SFLA campus representatives pull up video segments on their smartphones when pro-abortion activists charge them with lying about Planned Parenthood.
The charge of lying cuts both ways, though. Former Planned Parenthood facility manager Abby Johnson now runs And Then There Were None, which helps abortion staffers leave the industry: She said conflicted staffers now think they may be befriended, secretly recorded, and betrayed. This saddens her: “It’s very unfortunate that pro-life people used deception,” since “this further victimizes abortion workers.” She recognized that the CMP video task is “exposure. Mine is healing.”
Still, 2015 overall was a positive year for the pro-life movement, as crisis pregnancy centers continued to save and change lives, and many states saw legislative progress (see “Forward momentum” in this issue). In Texas, the CMP videos led Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to convene a special hearing of the Health and Human Services Committee, and Gov. Greg Abbott announced his LIFE Initiative “to provide greater protections for children in the womb and prevent the sale of baby body parts.” The videos sparked investigations by the state attorney general and the Harris County [Houston] district attorney.
Houston investigators found particularly interesting the video starring (in a manner of speaking) Melissa Farrell, research director for one of the nation’s biggest sources of fetal parts, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast Inc. Farrell downplayed decisions to abort (“Most of the time … there’s no boohoo and grief”) and boasted: “My department contributes so much to the bottom line of our organization. … Our research department is the largest in the United States, larger than any the other affiliates’ combined. … I know it’s sickening on some level, but it’s fun. … Those of us who are into medicine and nursing, things that other people find gross we enjoy. … Except for snot. I can hold the bucket if you’re throwing up but please don’t sneeze on me.”
So far, though, the threat of legal action to shut down Planned Parenthood seems at most a sneeze. The battle is still a worldview one, and the pro-life movement depends on those who believe in God and dedicate themselves to defending all those whom God wonderfully makes, no matter how small. And it’s those who stick to hard tasks, no matter how small, who may make the difference.
One of those unsung heroes is R.J. McVeigh, 23, a Students for Life regional director who often awakes at 6 a.m. and drives a van he packed the night before to a college in Michigan, Ohio, or Indiana. When he arrives perhaps two hours later, five or six pro-life students carry his cargo to a grassy commons such as Ohio State University’s South Oval, or the University of Michigan-Flint’s North Lawn, or Eastern Michigan University’s Pray-Harrold field—any high-traffic area near a dining hall, student center, or both.
By 9 a.m., McVeigh and students have staked into the lawn 897 bright pink, 6-inch metal crosses—one for each baby Planned Parenthood aborted every day in 2013. Where administrators forbid lawn puncture, students bring out plastic foam. Over the crosses, students raise bright pink panels. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., passersby read the panels’ white lettering and learn how Planned Parenthood each year performs hundreds of thousands of abortions (income: $150 million) upon 94 percent of the pregnant women who walk into a franchise.
McVeigh, who holds a B.S. in biomedical science and chemistry, estimates that one-fourth of students who ask him about the display didn’t know Planned Parenthood does abortions. Another fourth “pretty stubbornly” support the abortion provider. The remaining half includes some pro-life students but many others still figuring out where they stand. Those are the ones who will determine the future legality of abortion—and the pro-life movement is swimming against cultural currents to reach them.
All that makes 2015 not the beginning of the end for Planned Parenthood. But it may have been the end of the beginning.
—with reporting by World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduates Michael Hamilton, Tony Douglas, Nick Gibson, Jim Long, Leslie Beggs, Kimberlee Fletcher, Dori Abbott, Joy Riley, and Susan Richter
Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss this cover story on The World and Everything in It.