The unfolding events surrounding Planned Parenthood have brought into view the macabre business of harvesting and selling fetal organs and body parts. They have also shown what happens when the human body is reduced to its component parts and stripped it of moral content. The grammar of cultural decadence comes into full view.
Planned Parenthood presents us with the grammar and vision of decadence, a concrete instantiation of an economy that kills. This is vision devoid of wonder, a vision which corrodes our capacity to see and makes the collective gaze increasingly myopic. Such a vision demands that we cast a narrow gaze upon the world and upon other humans. Such a vision demands we see a fantastic catalog of pieces of data, and unsee the meaning of the whole. Creation is reduced to a heap of facts and resources. The human person is reduced a pile of appendages.
Such a vision characterizes the disease of decadence. In her masterpiece, Sexual Personae, art historian and cultural critic Camille Paglia writes that decadence is “a disease of the western eye” which sees the body “as form stripped of meaning” (419). Decadence requires us to both see and not see reality in a particular way, as it trains the eye to dissolve the whole into its parts. It encourages practices that are glossed with neutral language, “products of conception,” “medical waste,” as they systematically coarsen our vision of the human person and make every one of us a potential commodity.
The videos released over the past two weeks by the Center for Medical Progress bring into focus the extent to which the modern practice and grammar of abortion epitomize cultural decadence by reducing the human person in both speech and practice to a dismembered catalog of parts.
In the first video, Dr. Nocatola discusses with the coolness and precision characteristic of the kind of decadence evident in the writings of the Marques de Sade, those parts of the unborn child that are valuable and exactly how to dismember him in order to ensure “getting it all in tact.” Rhetorically she describes the unborn child as valuable in his component parts, thus affirming his humanness while denying his humanity. She speaks of lungs, hearts, livers, lower extremities, muscle, explaining how she alters the abortion procedure and manipulates the unborn body of the unborn children into the breech position in order to procure in tact organs.
Gone, even if only for a moment, is the “neutral” grammar that typically cloaks abortion— “women’s reproductive freedom,” “choice,” “building futures and pursuing goals,” “compassionate care.” Gone, even if only for a moment, is the possibility of an abstract assent to abortion. Dr. Nocatola discusses the parts of the human fetus that have economic, legal, and scientific value, despite belonging to a human being who retains no value or legal status. Reduced to her component parts, the unborn fetus will be crushed in a certain way so as to preserve those parts that have value.
Such “shop talk,” as it was called on NPR last week is formed by a habit of coarseness and desensitization. The ease with which these doctors speak of more and less “crunchy” techniques for abortion, discuss the systematic dismembering of the unborn, and bargain over the market value of fetal organs demands a coarseness of vision, which reduces the human person to her parts.
To see as Drs. Nocatola and Gatter see requires, on the one hand, an aversion of the eye so as not to perceive the humanity of the unborn. On the other hand, it requires a kind of precise, myopic, even voyeuristic sight which exalts the concrete parts of the unborn—her limbs, her heart, her lungs, and her liver—which are procured with meticulous care, catalogued, then shipped. The rest is just thrown away.
There is an interplay between the coarseness of decadence as a disease of the eye and the decadence’s economic inflection. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis describes such an “economics of exclusion” in which “human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and discarded” (no. 53).
Despite Cecile Richards’ attempts to redirect our gaze away from Planned Parenthood’s practices, these videos expose the lie of abortion. They reveal a narrative of contradiction. The logic of Planned Parenthood would have us to wonder at the scientific advances that may be made with the unborn fetus’s organs, while believing that the unborn fetus is utterly un-wonderful. It would have us deny his humanity, but procure his human organs. It would have us look away and refuse to perceive that the one on whom we gaze is a human person. And insofar as we do avert our gaze, we participate in the banal business of destroying human beings.
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