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You Don't Have to Be Pro-Life to Find the Planned Parenthood Videos Disturbing

Partial birth abortion
Despite my pro-choice stance, I believe partial birth abortion is downright barbaric

As I am about to tackle one of the most controversial subjects in modern political discourse, let me start this with a few disclaimers.

(1) I am pretty adamantly pro-choice, but I feel like the abortion issue in this country is best tackled in the spirit of compromise. Without the assistance of religious beliefs or gut feelings, it is not possible to determine at what point a fetus goes from being a clump of cells to a life deserving of the protections of law. With the argument centered on two extreme beliefs--that life begins at conception or at birth--we need to find a good middle ground that makes most of us comfortable, at least until a firmer scientific consensus can emerge on the matter. The 20 week cut-off point seems a reasonable place to start, as that is when medical science appears to agree a fetus can feel pain. (I will not get into side matters like parental notification, mandatory ultrasounds, and such, as these could easily pad out this blog into a rambling three-parter.)

(2) I support Planned Parenthood on the merits. I feel that, despite their uncomfortable history in eugenics and racism, they have become a source of good for the community at large, providing healthcare services that range from cancer screenings to sex education and, yes, even abortion. As long as it adheres to decent standards of ethical behavior, I see no reason to oppose the organization.

Behold the man responsible for the federal funding of Planned Parenthood

(3) I am opposed to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, but only because I have an ideological problem with broad government subsidies in general. For reference, these funds started under President Nixon, who signed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act with healthy bipartisan support. It is only recently that Republicans have started bearing pitchforks and torches in an effort to change this.

Now then, on to the recently released videos from the Center for Medical Progress purporting to show senior Planned Parenthood officials profiting from the sale of body parts harvested from partial-birth abortions. The first video shows Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood, discussing how best to harvest fetal tissue and how much the organization should be paid to donate them, all in a distressingly casual manner over salad and wine. She goes on to discuss "crushing" a partially-born fetus above and below certain specialty organs that are more desired and/or profitable.

At first blush, this video should be appalling, but a little background and context is sorely needed. For one thing, a longer, unedited version of the footage offers Dr. Nucatola a chance to make it clearer that Planned Parenthood, as an organization, doesn't "profit" from the sale of harvested organs, only that it recoups a small operational fee, something federal law permits them to do. For another, the Center for Medical Progress is itself hardly a trustworthy source of information, and this is not the first time they've attacked Planned Parenthood. If this were all a case of Planned Parenthood's version of the truth versus the Center for Medical Progress' version, I believe we'd be at a stalemate and the story would be over.

Dr. Nucatola
She's not talking about her delightful salad

However, a second video was released a few days after the first, and it is far more damning. In this video, Dr. Mary Gatter, the President of the Planned Parenthood Medical Director's Council, is seen not only haggling over the price of fetal organs and tissue, but admitting quite freely that they are willing to provide tissue that "you just take" instead of having it knowingly donated by "the patient." Even worse, she says she would consider deliberately altering the medical procedure for abortions done at the 10-12 week mark to maximize tissue viability (a "less crunchy technique," to use her own words), immediately after acknowledging that doing so would violate Planned Parenthood's own ethical guidelines. Then, in the last moments of the negotiations, she makes a joke about wanting a Lamborghini.

While Dr. Gatter comes across as downright ghoulish with her blasé discussions of abortion, deceiving patients, being compensated for recovered body parts, and making jokes about wanting enough money to buy a Lamborghini, the only clearly illegal activity being captured on the video is the fraud being perpetrated by the Center for Medical Progess. Nothing Dr. Gatter says even hints at illegal behavior, though it does raise a few red flags about her ethics.

I'll admit, when I first saw these videos, I was horrified at Planned Parenthood. Then, when I discovered that the sale of harvested fetal tissue is actually legal, I was horrified by the legal loophole that lets this happen. It's not Planned Parenthood's fault that the law allows them to make a modest sum off of aborted baby parts. What we should be discussing, rather than federal funding for Planned Parenthood (which, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty insignificant an issue), is whether the law is letting perverse incentives form that encourage unethical behavior and whether anyone should be allowed to make even a small amount of money from fetal tissue donations.

Dr. Gatter
Disturbing? Yes. Illegal? No.

Even as an "adamantly pro-choice" libertarian, I find the underlying issues here incredibly disturbing, and I am shocked that people like Drs. Nucatola and Gatter can be so casual about them. Perhaps that's just what happens when you deal with these issues on a daily basis; you get desensitized over time. I know a pro-lifer would find this the most horrifying thing about these videos, that such a desensitized attitude can form around the destruction and piecemeal redistribution of what they believe to be human life. As a matter of personal belief, I wholly sympathize.

But this isn't about personal belief or conviction; this is about the law. These videos do not prove that Planned Parenthood has in any way violated it. Right-wing politicians jumping at the chance to ride the momentary shock and horror of these videos to further an agenda of defunding, investigating, and harrassing the organization are exploitative and shameless (which I guess is the definition of "politician"). Still, there's the potential that these videos could spark a constructive discussion about the ethics and incentives behind abortion and selling of fetal tissue, if only we could stop looking at this whole thing as a "Planned Parenthood is either entirely good or entirely evil" false dichotomy that has little, if anything, to do with the truth.

[This topic is covered again in a follow-up blog entitled "Rethinking the Planned Parenthood Videos."]

-e. magill 7/23/2015

  • The Planned Parenthood Videos, Part 3: Did Carly Fiorina Lie?
  • Rethinking the Planned Parenthood Videos
  • Rethinking Gun Control