Of the issues on the front burner of the Republican campaign so far, none has been more prominently paraded than the frenzy over Planned Parenthood. Most dramatic has been a version of guerilla theatre of the right in the form of heavily edited and secretly recorded videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of “baby parts” “harvested” from aborted fetuses. So effective has that campaign been that it almost managed to shut down the government and was a major factor in the fall of Speaker Boehner.
How can this be?
At one level this makes no sense at all. If the goal is to reduce the number of abortions, the federal government should increase funding to Planned Parenthood, not cut it, since the federal money pays for no abortions and is primarily paying for contraception.
Presumably at least some of the Republican candidates understand this, but aside from Donald Trump’s acknowledgment that there are some “good aspects” of Planned Parenthood that he would look at before defunding the organization entirely, there is precious little evidence of this.
For Ted Cruz: “There is no place for taxpayer funding of organizations that profit from taking away innocent life, much less profiting off the bodies of the lives they have stolen.” Marco Rubio reduces Planned Parenthood to “an organization that’s been caught repeatedly, and now on video, trafficking in fetal tissue of aborted children.”
Ben Carson doubles down on the claim that Planned Parenthood doesn’t understand the “sanctity of human life,” and adds a racial dimension, asserting that Planned Parenthood has a history of association with the eugenics movement and that its clinics are located in minority communities or black neighborhoods. He concludes that this was a way to “control that population.” Even Trump retreated from his moment of sanity to characterize Planned Parenthood as an “abortion factory.”
The truth is that the horror story of Planned Parenthood promoting abortion in order to profit from the sale of baby parts is just irresistible to a good portion of the Republican base, so perfectly does it fit its fears. Like conspiracy narratives of all kinds, the story connects the dots in ways that makes sense of a basic fact pattern and that reaffirms basic worldviews.
If one believes that abortion is murder, those who enable it are evil. Here comes a tale that explains their motives. Far from helping women, in this story Planned Parenthood is preying on them to make money. A simple narrative that rings true. So much easier to believe than the real truth.
It is a sad commentary on the state of American politics that this cast of Republican candidates either doesn’t know better or, perhaps more likely, can’t resist the temptation to exploit the fears of their constituents.