The videos of Planned Parenthood employees bragging about performing “less crunchy” abortions in order to harvest intact organs set off a political firestorm. The imbroglio reached its apex during the second Republican presidential debate, when Carly Fiorina decried the harvesting of a brain from an intact, extracted fetus whose heart had restarted—described on camera by a former tissue procurement technician—as an issue that defines “the character of our nation.”
In the wake of the fetal organ harvesting exposé, the pro-life movement mounted vigorous and continuing protests in front of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. These protesters considered themselves to be acting in the proud traditions of abolition, women’s suffrage (the great Susan B. Anthony was implacably against abortion), and the modern civil rights movement.
Well and good. But there seems to be a disconnect between the deadly serious message of the protests and the demeanor of some protesters. Too often—not always, but with sufficient frequency that I noticed it—protestors smile broadly as they pose for photographs in front of Planned Parenthood clinics or take selfies behind signs that express righteous anger.
What is there to smile about? The protests are about far more than the abortionists’ accepting payments for fetal organs—which clearly drew political blood, as Planned Parenthood just announced it will not accept such compensation going forward. Rather, Defund Planned Parenthood protesters abhor abortion as a profound violation of human rights, and they believe that the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress prove that Planned Parenthood harbors a crass and denigrating attitude toward the unborn—hard to dispute. More than a general anti-abortion protest, the Defund movement specifically wants to close the spigot to hundreds of millions in taxpayer money paid annually to Planned Parenthood, money that materially furthers—if it doesn’t directly pay for—the approximately 357,000 abortions (2013) that take place annually in PP clinics.
I understand that the Defund Planned Parenthood protesters are in an unfair public relations bind. No fair observer can doubt the double standard working against them in the media: No matter how vituperative pro-choice activists become, how loudly they scream or how disruptive they act during pro-life political rallies, they will never be accused of spewing “hate” or of being threatening. But should a pro-lifer raise her voice, use vivid language, or, heck, even pray in front of an abortion clinic, she will often be accused of intimidation and of posing a threat to the safety of women seeking abortions and those who provide them.
If the protesters' smiles are aimed at ameliorating that unwarranted “pro-lifers hate women” meme, it won’t work. No matter how friendly and unintimidating anti–Planned Parenthood protesters appear to be, it won’t matter. Their ideological opponents hold the whip hand when it comes to defining public perceptions.
So, smiling during serious protests won’t benefit the movement. But it will unintentionally communicate a message that the protesters aren’t really in earnest, or that they are just engaging in a social gathering of the like-minded. This will undermine the overarching purpose of the Planned Parenthood protests—that is, raising consciousness to reduce abortion and politically isolating the country’s most prominent abortionists.
There is a range of expressions between broad smiles and face-distorting rage. Photos of Martin Luther King leading civil rights protests illustrate, I think, the most effective protest demeanor. When King led a march, he never looked angry. And he certainly didn’t smile. He appeared serious and determined—with a touch of sadness that such protests were necessary. And isn’t that precisely how the Defund protesters feel?
For those who are valiantly swimming against the cultural tide in protesting Planned Parenthood, please forgive my (I hope, constructive) criticism. I know that it is not easy being maligned and mischaracterized as a movement.
But in our age, appearances sometimes trump substance. In this case, smiling is not just inappropriate; it could also deflect from the urgent task at hand.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. An updated and revised edition of his award-winning Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America will be released by Encounter Books next spring.