If you had told me, as recently as yesterday, that Planned Parenthood has been glibly putting some of its most vulnerable patients at undue risk, I would have been skeptical, on the basis that Planned Parenthood is an organization devoted to providing reproductive health care and defending women’s rights, and that the leaders of the organization are presumably sincerely committed to their own goals, even if they have some controversial beliefs about what that might mean in practice.
But that was yesterday. Today, one of these right-wing undercover video sting outfits released a video from a lunch with Deborah Nucatola, the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a practicing physician who works at one of the organization’s clinics in California. The activists were posing as potential clients, in the market for fetal tissue, and Nucatola explained in gruesomely blase detail that Planned Parenthood could help, and that their doctors have experience surgically extracting fetuses without crushing too many of the vital organs, and—I mean, I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to offer a few comments, even though it’s not a Texas-specific story, and really shouldn’t be understood as a political one.
From a pro-life perspective, that is, the discussion in the video is morally appalling, obviously. But I don’t think many pro-choice people would disagree. The abortions Nucatola is discussing would be illegal in many states (including Texas, except in the event of a fatal fetal abnormality) even where a majority of people would describe themselves as pro-choice–or be described by angry conservatives as pro-abortion. Beyond the law, most Americans are personally opposed to late-term abortions, even if they think women should have the legal right to seek them under some circumstances; that’s why late-term abortions are rare, even where they’re legal. (According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1.4% of all abortions in the country in 2011 took place after the 20-week mark.)
But let’s set all that aside, and assume, for the purposes of discussion, that Planned Parenthood’s statement about the video is 100% true: that their sole purpose in fetal tissue donation is to facilitate medical research; that many of their patients want to donate such tissue and all of them who do so have fully consented to the arrangement; that Planned Parenthood doesn’t realize any financial gain from its role in this, and that any money they receive only helps defray costs; and that the video was selectively edited by ideologically motivated activists with a vested interest in making Nucatola look like Hannibal Lecter crossed with Kermit Gosnell. All of that may actually be true. Even so, what Planned Parenthood is doing here violates the stated ethical principles of Planned Parenthood. This is, again, an organization devoted to providing reproductive health care and defending women’s rights, and their statement points to problems on both fronts.
First: supporting medical research is an honorable goal, and I can appreciate that donating fetal tissue might be a comfort to parents grieving the loss of an unborn child. Still, when paramedics arrive at a car crash, they don’t treat injuries differently based on whether the injured person is an organ donor, as far as I know. Similarly, a physician providing an abortion should be focused on the care that they are providing to the actual patient in the room, not managing the surgical procedure with a view to minimizing “crushing” that might inconvenience a researcher at some future date, as Nucatola describes.
Second: it’s a matter of common sense that a woman who’s decided to terminate a pregnancy isn’t likely to delay the procedure unless she has to. And as any advocate for women will tell you—at regular intervals, whether or not you asked—women in that position are typically more vulnerable than most: perhaps they didn’t have enough money for the procedure, or they had to travel some distance to access care, or they were under the controlling eye of a potentially abusive partner. That complicates Planned Parenthood’s assertion that all of their patients have given “full, appropriate consent” to donate their fetal tissue. Consent doesn’t mean much if it’s given out of guilt, or under suasion from one of the relatively few medical providers willing to perform a procedure that is controversial, stigmatized, and accordingly difficult to access. You’d think that Planned Parenthood, of all places, would be inclined to err on the side of caution.
When an organization like Planned Parenthood is caught up in controversy, there’s a natural tendency for its supporters, used to such controversies, to circle the wagons. In this case, I think that mentality would be counterproductive. Since we don’t live in a cartoon universe full of heroes and supervillains, the fetal tissue donation program can’t be as groteque or sinister as some right-wingers are describing it to be. Given Nucatola’s ballpark figures, for example, it hardly seems like the organization is making a killing (so to speak) in the lucrative market for dismembered babies. Still, it’s reasonable for people who support Planned Parenthood’s stated goals to have qualms about practices that undermine those goals, deliberately or not—even if pro-life activists are the ones who raised the alarm.