Revisiting Incentives, and Some Comments
My wife likes to say, “If you want to find out where something is wrong most quickly, just put it on the Internet.” I think she is correct, and it came to mind as I was mulling over my piece from earlier this week.
Earlier this week, I put together a post in reaction to the news surrounding Planned Parenthood and the video “sting” that attempted to prove that Planned Parenthood was making money via selling harvested, developed fetal tissue for the purposes of research. After reflection, and reading over the comments on the piece, I got it wrong, and it warrants a bit of self-examination.
Bottom line up front: I think that I was wrong on some of the conclusions of the piece, substantially so, to the point that I wish I hadn’t written and posted it when I did. I will try to explain where and why I think I got those things wrong, in the interests of getting it right in the future.
Writing at Ordinary Times, my goal is to do analysis, first and foremost, even if I have my own biases (as we all do). I see two main errors in the piece.
First was the baseline assumption. I wrote,
It seems quite clear that Planned Parenthood is making some money by selling the body parts of aborted fetuses.
But in reality, this was far too strong. The full video shows that the “target” of the sting goes to great pains in all but one quote to signify that they do not try to “profit” from the sales.
I do not–repeat, not–think that this is crystal clear in either direction. (As I wrote in the comments, I think expecting a “silver bullet” remark is unrealistic.) I expect that other information will emerge from other videos (apparently) and the ensuing politically-motivated investigations that will push the reality in either direction. I have my suspicions about the underlying dynamics, but that’s really all they are: suspicions. We know that the person in the video claims something most of the time, and something slightly different one other time. But that’s all it is so far; there is not enough to assume that money is being made, and then use that as a baseline assumption for the rest of the piece. My initial correction on the piece was, frankly, weak tea.
What is darkly amusing to me is that I literally just wrote something to this effect in a paper from my other life as a student, something to the effect of “if you don’t want to accept a prevailing understanding of facts and assumptions that is tangential to something you are writing about, that’s OK, but you have to challenge it explicitly, rather than just hand-waving it.” I did not take my own advice here.
Second is the incentives piece itself. commenter zic’s remarks and questions here were particularly instructive and clarifying: specifically, zic was insisting on me producing a mechanic for my suggestion that the misaligned incentives would lead to delayed abortions.
The truth is that on the ground, after much reflection and some discussion with someone with more knowledge on this front, the only instance I can think of where Planned Parenthood could delay an abortion substantially would be through something like skewed prenatal counseling. If a mother was hesitant, Planned Parenthood might suggest that she wait a little while. From the coldly economic perspective though, Planned Parenthood might not want wavering mothers to reconsider. If they’re ready to go, they’re ready to go. This is also true if we dispense with the economics and try to explore the ideology from Planned Parenthood’s perspective: they are interested in taking care of the mother rather than their pocketbooks.
This reminds me of an historical issue that I’ve read about in some detail. If you analyze the relationship between tariffs and international trade in the 19th century, you might argue that the increased tariffs of the late 19th century skewed incentives against trade. This would be true, but the rapidly-decreasing shipping costs cut in the exact opposite direction. In doing the analysis, we must look at the totality of the incentives, rather than a single incentive. The incentives cut both ways, and I think the totality of them actually push against delaying abortion, in the case of Planned Parenthood. I missed on that one, badly.
You could argue that working to preserve organs in abortions presents its own misaligned incentives: the procedure becomes more challenging for the doctor, then, and then presents additional possible risks to the mother. Certainly, if mothers are informed of the risks of tissue donation and provide consent, that would be acceptable; if not, it wouldn’t be. I think this remains a troubling piece of the story, but it is not what I argued.**
Thus in the end, I now reject the certainty by which I presented the underlying assumptions of the piece, as well as the implication and conclusion that I developed off of those assumptions. Put together, that’s virtually the whole architecture of the piece. Normally, if I write something, I might change my mind on a couple of minor word choices or concepts in a piece after engaging with comments. It is rare for me to reject a whole underlying assumption and conclusion after a mere two days. That is why I felt compelled to examine it in detail.
Thinking about it, I suspect that most of this essentially can be explained by two things: my own visceral horror at the video I watched, and my desire to get something original written quickly. But this cuts against a more prudent writing process: have an idea, let it marinate, do some additional research, see if it’s been written up anywhere else, write something, let it sit for a day, and then revisit. This is particularly important when trying to analyze consequential, controversial topics. In this instance, I skipped the important review steps. I wanted to be first to market, I think, with this “incentives” angle. But that’s a fool’s errand, and an error on my part. I hope I would have caught some of these errors if I hadn’t rushed, but there are no guarantees. The prudent thing to do in writing a piece like this would have been to wait: wait for additional videos, wait for additional information from reporters, etc. I did not.
I remain deeply disturbed by the idea that developed fetal organs are sold in a market of any sort, and I think that it warrants discussion. But again, that is not what I wrote, and it’s not a particularly interesting analytical conclusion; it’s a moral judgment.
Lastly, to clarify two things that kept coming up in comments:
1. Non-profit organizations can and do seek profit; the distinction is over where the “profit” winds up, rather than the overall aims. Universities are non-profits, but they seek money to reinvest in faculty, facilities, and administrators so they they can attract future “customers.” It’s not all that different from any other business. (The NFL, of all things, was a non-profit for a very long time.)
2. I’m not in favor of mandatory waiting periods because of the dynamic I discussed in the piece. To me, the later the abortion, the higher the risk that we are destroying a living human. Waiting periods push that risk marginally higher, day by day. Again, in my estimation, if abortion is legal, it should be earlier, ceteris paribus. (This is a minority position on the Right, but considering how important it was for my original argument, I feel like I should state it more explicitly.)
I genuinely do appreciate the feedback on the piece, and I will write more intelligently (I hope!) in the future. I will leave it up to my fellow OTers as to how to handle the original post.
**An interesting thought experiment: in a world where abortion rights were uncontroversial, what would the ideological divide be surrounding procedures being modified to extract organs for research, if those procedures were to result in increased health risks for the mother?