Last month, the anti-abortion activist group Center for Medical Progress released an undercover video of a Planned Parenthood doctor graphically describing techniques by which fetal organs for medical research are harvested during partial-birth abortions.
Amid calls for congressional defunding and criminal investigations, Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, apologized for the “tone and statements” of Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services.
The video is online; websites of many reputable news organizations include at least partial transcripts. Media discussions are contentious as people with agendas cherry-pick parts of the tape that seem to support a given side of the controversy: Was the doctor talking about illegal organ-selling? Or was she discussing reasonable charges for the recovery and processing of consensually donated organs? Was her description of the details of partial-birth abortion and organ procurement despicably cold-hearted? Or was she just speaking matter-of-factly to people she thought were fellow professionals who were just as familiar with those procedures as she was?
I’m going to address only one part of this mess: Nucatola’s “tone.”
During the July 19 segment of “Fox News Sunday,” a regular cable television political commentary, panelists discussed the “horrific nature of what is being described (in the video).” Veteran Fox News commentator Brit Hume said Nucatola’s callousness “is a product of abortion culture.”
Hume’s remark makes it seem as if there’s something about the medical practice of abortion that’s uniquely dehumanizing to its practitioners. There isn’t.
Nucatola’s callousness is no different from mine. Her tone is the same tone I use when describing to death investigators and other insiders the dissections I’ve performed on the bodies of dead children.
I’m not surprised that people are shocked to hear Nucatola speak graphically and unemotionally about “crushing” fetuses as she sips her wine and eats her salad. I know people would be equally disturbed if they saw videotape of me speaking unguardedly about the work I do. I’ve just never been so unlucky as to be covertly videotaped by people pretending to be fellow insiders.
To most people, the things Nucatola described and the things I do are almost unmentionable, if not unthinkable. The uninitiated who get an inadvertent glimpse of the worlds of medical professionals experience a cultural clash that’s shocking, and people who have agendas can take advantage of their reaction.
Cut Nucatola some slack. Nothing in the video suggests to me that she’s a bad or unusually callous person. For doctors, police officers, funeral directors and others who routinely see and do things most people couldn’t deal with, the horror goes away. The terrible becomes commonplace; the heart-breaking becomes routine. Emotional reactions vanish.
That’s how it has to be. People who are tied in emotional knots can’t do the things we do, and the things we do are important:
If societies want child murderers to be caught and prosecuted, somebody has to do an autopsy.
If societies want medical researchers to study fetal organs as a legitimate part of the quest to mitigate or cure diseases that plague humanity, somebody has to recover them.
The nature of their work requires all those somebodies to become just as inured to their gruesome jobs as Nucatola and I are. People should be able to understand that if they stop and think.
When I asked my daughter if she’d seen the Planned Parenthood video, Alison shrugged. “It’s just some doctor talking doctor talk, isn’t it?” she said.
Alison knows all about doctor talk because she’s heard it from me all her life. She’s strongly opposed to abortion, but she found nothing disturbing about Dr. Nucatola’s “tone.”
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003 to 2012. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.