In July, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) began releasing selectively edited undercover videos that allegedly show Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, speaking candidly about how the organization was selling fetal tissue donations for profit. The first video, recorded by a fictitious biomedical research company set up by CMP, set off a political firestorm, with pro-life politicians blaming Planned Parenthood for selling “aborted baby parts.”
Since then, CMP has released a series of subsequent videos, some with graphic imagery meant to disturb and shock viewers into changing their viewpoint on the issue. The anti-abortion group says it plans on gradually releasing thousands of hours of covertly recorded footage that will provide proof of Planned Parenthood’s seemingly gruesome plan to turn a profit.
Selling versus donating fetal tissue
While it’s illegal to sell fetal tissue, donations are in fact legal. Under a 1993 law, allowances to the donor are made for “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing…or storage of human fetal tissue.” This means that Planned Parenthood can only ask for enough to cover its own costs for preserving and transporting the fetal tissues.
So when Nucatola told the undercover activists that fetal tissues could be obtained for fees in the $30 to $100 range, she may simply (and legally) have been determining what fee would be “reasonable” to cover a potential partner’s costs.
Fetal tissue research and bioethical concerns
From a pro-life perspective, the transplantation of tissue from an aborted fetus is morally inseparable from the abortion itself. As CMP’s About Us page notes, “We are concerned about contemporary bioethical issues that impact human dignity, and we oppose interventions, procedures, and experiments that exploit the unequal legal status of any class of human beings.”
But supporters argue that it’s morally wrong to oppose legally-donated fetal tissue research because it has saved millions of lives and could save millions more. And this research is not new. Medical researchers have been using fetal tissue since the 1930s to study and develop treatments for lethal and debilitating diseases, including diabetes, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s. Experimentation using cultures from fetal kidney cells was instrumental in developing the polio vaccine.
Funding attacks and political pressure leave their mark
In the past few weeks, according to federal and a number of state investigations into Planned Parenthood’s finances and practices, no evidence of wrongdoing has been uncovered (as of this writing). In other words, the organization has been found to only be receiving legal reimbursements for the cost of transferring donations to biological companies it partners with.
Unfortunately, the harm has already been done: the federal government almost shut down when Republicans tried to slash $528 million in funding to Planned Parenthood, and House Speaker John Boehner resigned at least in part due to a rift between the GOP establishment and the more socially conservative Tea Party wing over the defunding issue. Conservative politicians at the state level are joining in droves to attack Planned Parenthood in whatever way they can, including terminating its contracts with Medicaid and Title X programs.
On October 13, 2015, the organization announced that its clinics will no longer accept reimbursement to cover expenses related to fetal tissue donation for medical research. Despite the lack of government investigations uncovering legal culpability on its part, the political pressure was so high that it was most likely easier for Planned Parenthood to simply give in.
Why is Planned Parenthood a target?
Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of family planning and preventive health care services in the United States, with more than 800 health clinics that serve around four million Americans annually. Patients are provided with an array of care, including family planning, screenings for breast and cervical cancer, testing for STDs, and other services. But it also performs 300,000 or so abortions each year, making it the single largest provider of abortions in the United States—and a very large target for pro-life advocates.
Because federal law bars the organization from using any of the $528 million it receives annually on abortion services, it must use other funding sources, such as donations, to provide that service. But abortions only make up three percent of its health care services. In other words, attacking the organization’s funding sources based on the abortion issue means also attacking the important preventive health care services it provides.
These attacks are not taking place suddenly—the pro-life movement has been trying to defund Planned Parenthood for at least 30 years. Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, there has been a consistent and dedicated campaign to make abortion illegal (again). The current effort to discredit and defund Planned Parenthood is only the most recent skirmish in a continuing battle, and if recent history teaches us anything, it’s that there are plenty more ahead.
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