At TNR today, Brian Beutler does a fine job of exposing the bait-and-switch that a lot of us have discerned not just in the current conservative campaign to shut down Planned Parenthood, but in the entire antichoice crusade against late-term abortions, its preferred tactic for well over a decade.

The abortion abolitionists who produced the sting videos, and some of their conservative media allies, claim to have uncovered evidence that Planned Parenthood undertook illegal methods to procure fetal organs, so that they could sell those organs, illegally, for profit. If that were true, Planned Parenthood would be in legal trouble. Having failed to produce evidence of criminal activity, conservatives could instead argue that the ethics of fetal tissue procurement and research in general are still wanting: That it should be more tightly regulated, or banned in cases of abortion, or that abortion clinics should have to bear the procurement costs themselves.

What they’ve done instead is initiate a political assault that aims to starve Planned Parenthood of funds, unless Planned Parenthood agrees to stop performing abortions altogether. The campaign is lead by congressional Republicans intent on prohibiting government payers like Medicaid from reimbursing Planned Parenthood for non-abortion services they provide to poor women, perhaps on the threat of a government shutdown. If it seems the campaign has moved on from the intricacies and legal strictures governing fetal tissue procurement, it’s because it was never about that to begin with. It was about deploying graphic images to increase public opposition to abortion.

This isn’t even the subtext of the controversy. It’s the text of it. [Ross] Douthat stands by Fiorina because they share the belief that “the process of acquiring organs from the unborn involves practices and habits that would shock the squeamishly pro-choice if they ever had to confront the reality.” The explicit aim isn’t to change these processes per se but to shock and thus convert the “squeamishly pro-choice.” It’s an Operation Rescue protest in the guise of advocacy, investigative journalism, committee hearings, and New York Times columns.

That’s right, and that’s why mendacity and bad faith are at the center of this and other antichoice efforts to use the tiny, tiny number of late-term abortions to demonize the vast number that occur in the first trimester of pregnancy alongside untold miscarriages and unknown pregnancies. These are people who overwhelmingly believe zygotes should have the same constitutional rights as you or me–or anyone else so long as they are not pregnant women. Late-term abortions are not a “horror” to them, but a useful device for changing the subject.

For the record, here’s what I said on the very first day of the Planned Parenthood sting video brouhaha:

Look, we’re never going to have a consensus on the metaphysical character of fetal life, and the ethics of extinguishing that life early on, when nobody’s going to confuse it with a “baby” other than as an abstract notion or as a wish, or later on, when, in rare occasions, the life or health of the living, breathing, conscious pregnant woman is in question. Just calling a fetus a “baby” and calling use of fetal tissue for life-saving medical research “selling baby parts” is not going to change any minds. If Planned Parenthood has broken any actual laws, they should of course be prosecuted. But just because a loud and political powerful group of people thinks Planned Parenthood’s core activities ought to be illegal, and are in fact barbaric, is no reason to accept their lurid views of abortion doctors as Nazi butchers; rather the contrary, I’d say. A while back the antichoice movement decided that deploying activists brandishing bloody fetus photos was not doing The Cause any good. But this is pretty much the same thing.

Nothing that’s happened since then changes a thing about that assessment.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.