May 22, 2022

Planned Parenthood under fire over use of aborted tissue

Undercover journalists make sensational allegations

The use of foetal tissue in biomedical research has become an incendiary political issue in the United States. Four videos have been released by freelance investigative journalists working undercover which purport to show that abortion provider Planned Parenthood (PP) is illegally selling foetal body parts.

Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied that it is breaking any laws by supplying tissue from abortions to tissue companies. It also points out that scientists have used foetal tissue to develop life-saving vaccines for polio, rubella, and chicken pox.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding. According to the news site Politico, the annual total is US$528 million. Some Senators and Congressmen are vowing to do everything they can to defund Planned Parenthood. “This is one of those line-in-the-sand type of issues,” Rep Rick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican told Politico.

Funding for PP has always been a divisive issue, but the videos made by a group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) are explosive. Four have been released so far and the spokesman for CMP, David Daleiden, says that he hope to release another 8 or 10.

A California court has issued an injunction banning the release of a fifth video.

Several ethical issues crop up in media coverage of the controversy. First, CMP maintains that by charging tissue companies for body parts from aborted foetuses, PP is breaching Federal laws which ban the sale of human organs. PP responds that it is just charging small amounts to cover handling costs.

Second, the sting videos are a reminder of on-going debate over the use of aborted tissue in medical research. Even bioethicist Art Caplan, who does not oppose abortion, has some reservations. “It shifts the focus away from the women and their needs,” he told the website Vox. “It makes Planned Parenthood or any abortion clinic look like it’s trying to generate some other source of income, and it puts the clinic in a position that generates a lot of unease.”

Third, the victims of the sting complain that this is unethical journalism and that privacy laws have been violated. After similar incidents in the past, even some abortion foes had misgivings about gaining information under false pretenses.  

Some scenes in the videos are disturbing, even stomach-turning. The first features a lunchtime conversation with Deborah Nucatola, PP’s senior director of medical services. In it she discusses prices for specimens and how an abortion technique can be varied to extract more intact body parts. The second features Mary Gatter,  president of PP’s Medical Directors Council who discusses similar issues. In the third, a former PP employee alleges that it profits from the transactions. In the fourth, employees sort through body parts in a dish.

The release of the videos was well-timed. July is a slow news month and politicians are in the middle of preparations for next year’s election. The controversy offers Republicans a splendid opportunity to embarrass President Obama, a firm friend of PP. Each video ratchets up seriousness of the allegations and the yuk factor, so some very gruesome viewing could lie ahead.

Predictably, the allies of PP are digging furiously for dirt on Daleiden and the CMP. Pro-life supporters, on the other hand, are focusing on the images of baby body parts being sorted in a pie plate and offensive language by PP representatives (“… we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”).

Where is the debate going? It depends to some extent on whether sorting through body parts outrages the public as much as it outrages politicians. If Google is any guide, the public may not be all that interested. A search for “Planned Parenthood videos” brought up 12 million results. A search for “Cecil the lion”, who was killed in Zimbabwe by a dentist from Minnesota, brought up 51 million. 

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