Well, the simmering scandal over the Planned Parenthood undercover sting videos has finally succeeded in tripping up a 2016 candidate. Retired neurosurgeon and sayer of crazy things Ben Carson has, like most Republicans and conservatives, been harshly critical of Planned Parenthood for its controversial (and perfectly legal) practice of donating tissues from aborted fetuses to medical research groups. But, as Buzzfeed reported yesterday, Carson himself has done research on fetal brain tissue. That in itself is not a controversial development – doctors and scientists have been using fetal tissue for decades to develop treatments and cures for terrible diseases. But with the conservative movement up in arms over the Planned Parenthood videos, it poses something of a political dilemma for Carson, who is stridently in opposition to abortion rights.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel asked Carson about the fetal tissue research he’s conducted and Carson, to his credit, stood by the work he’s done. But his attempt at distancing himself from the broader issue of fetal tissue donation was technical and confusing:
There was no contradiction between this science and Carson's pro-life views, he said. "My primary responsibility in that research was when I operated on people and obtained the tissue," said Carson, who noted that he has not used fetal tissue samples since then. "This has everything to do with how it’s required. If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it."
I’ve read through Carson’s statement several times and I’m still not entirely sure what he is trying to say. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be the only person who is baffled by his attempt at explaining this. The Post’s Amber Phillips writes that Carson seems to be alleging that Planned Parenthood is performing abortions specifically so that fetal tissue will be available for medical research, but that’s an allegation that “Planned Parenthood has flatly rejected and isn't proven by the videos.”
At the very least, Carson is trapped in an inconsistency and he’s having a great deal of difficulty explaining it. And while that doesn’t make Carson look particularly good, his involvement with fetal tissue research and his tortured defense of it also cause problems for the other candidates and conservatives who are trying to demagogue the issue.
Carson's fellow presidential hopefuls are all trying to outdo each other by taking increasingly hardline stances on Planned Parenthood. Ted Cruz just released an ad promising he’ll prosecute the organization and put an end to the “harvest” of “organs from unborn children,” which he says is contrary to American “values.” Mike Huckabee is also calling for Planned Parenthood to be prosecuted for “for violating federal law and selling body parts.” It’s tough to make the political case that the donation of fetal tissue for medical research is un-American and potentially criminal when celebrated physician and conservative hero Ben Carson is complicit in the act.
To that point, Carson’s defense of his involvement with that research ended up turning into a broader defense of fetal tissue research and the role it has played in advancing medical science. “When we obtain tissue like that, we want to know what the origin of that tissue is developmentally,” he told the Post. “Knowing that helps us determine which patients are likely to develop a problem. It’s one of the reasons why at the turn of the last century, the average age of death was 47. Now, the average age of death is 80. Using the information that you have is a smart thing, not a dumb thing." This is a compelling moral case for fetal tissue research, and it’s coming from a Republican presidential candidate.
This is not the conversation Republicans and conservatives want to have when it comes to the Planned Parenthood videos. They’d much rather maintain focus on the gory details of abortion procedures and the unsubstantiated allegation that Planned Parenthood is profiting from all this. When you start talking about the scientific progress made possible by Planned Parenthood’s tissue donations and the amazing medical advancements that have already taken place, you enter into complex moral gray areas that erode the absolutist anti-abortion arguments that increasingly dominate conservative discourse and Republican politics.
The politics of the Planned Parenthood fight were already dicey for Republicans, given that hardline anti-abortion conservatives are pushing GOP leaders in Congress to take extreme measures – like shutting down the government – to cut off the organization’s federal funding. They're presenting this as a black-and-white issue with Planned Parenthood playing the role of an intolerable villain. News about Ben Carson’s own involvement with fetal tissue research and his broader defense of its merits add unwanted complexity and nuance to the fight.