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An underhanded video produced by the Center for Medical Progress, a right-wing front organization, claims that Planned Parenthood — a frequent target of the right — is selling fetal tissue for profit. Of course, the right refers to fetal tissue as "baby organs" or "unborn children," drawing upon historic anti-choice rhetoric designed to paint abortion as murder. The video has already triggered responses from lawmakers like Bobby Jindal and John Boehner, and it's come at a time when abortion is an especially fraught issue.
It's also completely disingenuous and sneaky, joining a long tradition of "undercover videos" aimed at destroying the reputation of organizations like Planned Parenthood. The reproductive health provider is a popular target because of its size and recognition, and it's notable that only three percent of the services provided by Planned Parenthood are directly related to abortion. The focus for patients is on preventative screening and care, contraception, and compassionate health services, with abortion as an option for those who need it, not as a primary function for the organization. Yet, providing any abortion services at all is grounds for attack in the eyes of the right.
In a shaky, heavily and very selectively edited nine minute video, people claiming to represent organ and tissue brokers corner Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's Senior Director for Medical Services. While a full three hours of footage is available, it's received a fraction of the views of the shorter video — and the longer footage provides critically needed context that actually debunks many of the assertions the right is making on the basis of the short video. Notably, even this footage is lacking some key components, like the discussions that led to the lunch depicted in the video.
The selective editing of the video makes it sound like Nucatola is talking about actively selling fetal tissue, including organs, and it goes into graphic descriptions of abortion procedures designed to preserve tissue for research. The video very much panders to extremist views of abortion, reinforcing the notion that the routine medical procedure is evil, but it's also calculated to appeal to the left, too. Being faced with the details of the medical procedure is designed to make members of the left feel uncomfortable, despite the fact that Planned Parenthood isn't doing anything illegal, dangerous, inethical, or painful — and similar preservation procedures are used on actual living human beings who opt to donate organs and tissue. In fact, there's been a lot of recent discussion about the "dead donor rule" and when it's appropriate to harvest human organs — a process that is not necessarily gentle.
"Pricing" discussed in the video is actually a routine practice throughout the organ and tissue donation and harvest community, and reflects the need to cover extraction, storage, and transport of human tissue. These costs are not necessarily inexpensive, and the $30-$100 Nucatola cites isn't outside the average for organ and tissue donation. While the sale of human organs is illegal in the United States, facilities that collect tissue for donation all charge fees to compensate them for recovery costs.
Hidden camera videos like this one are a beloved tactic of the right. Lila Rose, ardent anti-choice activist, notoriously produces "sting" videos that are extremely heavily edited and actively deceptive. David Daleiden, the talent behind this latest masterpiece of filmmaking, has dedicated himself to eradicating reproductive rights for much of his life, and he's friendly with fraudsters like James O'Keefe, known for orchestrating similar attacks.
Such videos tend to use a familiar script. They involve actors posing as pregnant patients or representatives — in this case, as those interested in fetal tissue for research — who use badgering and gotcha questions as well as misleading statements in an attempt to make the subject of the video say something compromising. Once the videographers feel they've collected enough footage, they retreat to the editing room, where they splice together footage in the least flattering way possible, cutting out context and making the subject of the video sound like a monster out to kill babies.
In the case of this video, the end results could be devastating. Fetal tissue is especially important for medical research in part because it's extremely rare, and because it includes human cells at some critical stages of development. Donating all or part of a fetus to research can contribute to treatments and sometimes cures for diseases that affect living adults — like Alzheimer's — but it can also help improve fetal medicine. Patients who opt to donate, in other words, are actively helping other patients who desperately want to give birth to living babies. In a statement on the video, Planned Parenthood representatives spoke to the fact that some patients want to contribute to medical research, and it helps facilitate that.
Fetuses are not children, and they're not alive. Donating their tissue, however, can help living human beings. Fetal and neonatal medicine are advancing very rapidly in the United States, turning many former prenatal death sentence diagnoses into treatable conditions, and patients willing to donate tissue are part of the reason why. For some, abortion is a difficult and traumatic choice, and donation can be a way of finding the silver lining in the procedure. For others, donating organs and tissue from an unwanted pregnancy can feel like a very natural contribution to society, just as many people have chosen to register as organ and tissue donors themselves.
Donation of human tissue is critically important. Waiting lists are extremely long and people die every day waiting for organ transplants. It's an established, reputable, and respected practice. Though trafficking is a global problem and it does occur in the United States, Planned Parenthood isn't engaging in trafficking by charging researchers a small fee for the collection of fetal tissue — it's doing what everyone else does. The alternative would be charging patients themselves for donating, which is extremely callous, or writing grants to cover tissue donation programs, which would be a waste of resources when researchers are already writing their own grants to pay for the limited costs associated with compensating clinics for collecting, storing, and transporting donated material.
Organ and tissue donation isn't without controversy. All Planned Parenthood patients who opt to donate must clearly express interest, sign consent forms, and indicate that they are not being coerced into donating tissue. They can also choose to change their minds. These safeguards reflect an ugly past in the history of medical research that was perhaps most strongly illustrated by the case of Henrietta Lacks.
In 1951, Ms. Lacks sought treatment for a "knot" in her abdomen. It proved to be a cervical tumor, which a surgeon removed and sent to a pathologist — a routine practice. However, cells from the tumor were later cultured and widely distributed without the knowledge or consent of Lacks and her family. HeLa cells, as they've come to be known, have been instrumental to the development of a huge number of medical advances, and to a wider understanding of the human body — but they were still obtained unethically, and in a way that mirrored the exploitation of women of color by the medical establishment. Lacks wasn't the only one to become an unwitting tissue donor, and lawmakers as well as government agencies put very strict safeguards into place to address issues like these.
Today, patients who want to donate tissue must consent, as Planned Parenthood patients who opt to donate fetal organs and other tissue do. Physicians are required to review the procedure and how the material will be used to patients can make informed decisions, and clinics are required to keep meticulous documentation regarding all organ and tissue donation.
This video will result in tremendous waste as government investigations once again probe into Planned Parenthood — and again find nothing to indicate the organization is doing anything unethical, illegal, or out of the ordinary. As Jodi Jacobsen discusses at RH Reality Check, Planned Parenthood isn't profiting from the sale of fetal tissue, but the GOP certainly is, as the video represents a positive goldmine of material and grounds for dramatic campaign videos and appeals. The right can use the film to slant the electoral field, arguing that electing a candidate on the left will result in the widespread trafficking of fetal remains.
The backlash has already begun costing patient lives. Members of the GOP just successfully blocked funding for Susan G. Komen for the Cure on the grounds that the breast cancer research organization donates to Planned Parenthood. Perhaps ironically, the organization attracted major controversy in 2012 when it suspended funding for Planned Parenthood's cancer screening program in what many perceived as a concession to conservative extremists. While Komen has rightly been accused of pinkwashing and has some serious organizational problems, the symbolic statement involved in cutting off funding to a breast cancer research organization because it routes funds to groups that provide cancer screening is chilling. Making a political point has become so important that Republicans are content to sentence patients to painful deaths — making it clear who the real monsters are in this picture.