This opinion piece is by Karen Swallow Prior, author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”
Stories surrounding both Planned Parenthood and a lion killed in Africa raise important questions about knowledge as a moral responsibility.
The first story, which has been unfolding over the past couple of weeks, concerns the release of a series of controversial undercover videos that show Planned Parenthood employees cavalierly discussing abortion techniques designed to salvage the most sought-after fetal parts for medical research and, in the most recent video, sorting through fetal remains to acquire desired limbs and organs.
Regardless of the legality or utility of the sale of these human remains, the cavalier callousness of the abortion providers in the videos stunned many on both sides of the abortion debate.
Then, an unrelated story emerged of an American trophy hunter who reportedly paid about $50,000 to bag a trophy cat in Zimbabwe. The lion turned out to be one loved by the local community, which had named him Cecil. Cecil was lured out of a protected area, and it took 40 hours for Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, to track and kill the lion after wounding it. After beheading and skinning the animal, Palmer left the carcass behind.
Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism argues that, regardless of which lion was killed, such a hunt is unethical because the act produced no human benefit, caused the animal needless suffering and was “killing for ego” rather than for sustenance or conservation.
On social media, many have connected the two stories through mutual finger-pointing at the perceived lack of outrage for one story or the other. But there is a stronger connection between the two events.
While elective abortion and trophy hunting are different issues surrounded by different ethical and political questions, both news stories offer — regardless of one’s views on either issue — an opportunity to consider the moral responsibility that comes with knowledge — and the moral responsibility that comes with willful ignorance.
Palmer, the trophy hunter, has said that he did not know the lion he killed was the legendary lion famed and beloved in the local community, and that he regrets the kill. Yet does his ignorance about the specific identity of the lion absolve him of moral responsibility? He knew he was paying $50,000 to shoot at a lion that was being baited rather than hunted.
So perhaps the more important question is, when does one become morally culpable for ignorance?
In the case of the Planned Parenthood expose, while there are legitimate questions around the making and editing of the videos, separate from these issues, stark and undeniable facts emerge from the existing footage: Gone is the illusion that these procedures simply and easily melt away a few microscopic cells, mere “products of conception.” Rather, the statements by Planned Parenthood staff and the processes captured in the videos make clear that — whatever the legal, moral or religious status of the fetuses — these are human bodies, whose organs and limbs are not only recognizable but are medically valuable because they are human.
The knowledge provided by the videos transcends a political question of being pro-life or pro-choice because it centers on our recognition of the nature of abortion. Even former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, a staunch abortion rights advocate, said she finds the videos “disturbing” and that the controversy “raises questions about the whole process” as well as the abortion industry as a whole.
Is the shock the public is experiencing at the videos because we have been deceived? Or is it because we have chosen to avert our eyes, to embrace willful ignorance?
Willful ignorance — whether on a personal or societal scale — ranges far more broadly, of course, than these two latest outrages-of-the-week.
For example, in my recent biography on British abolitionist and social reformer Hannah More, I explore how half of the battle to end the slave trade was simply — but by no means easily — getting the public to recognize the slave trade for the moral evil it was, an evil so close it could not be clearly seen. More and her fellow abolitionists advanced a host of moral reforms in their day (including animal welfare legislation), first helping their contemporaries to see — through drawings, poetry, art, sermons and pamphlets — what was right in front of them.
We readily accept that with knowledge comes responsibility. But both the Planned Parenthood and the lion slaying controversies show that at some point, even our willful ignorance confers the weight of moral responsibility.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.