The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Rethinking the Planned Parenthood Videos

CMP's third video
I recommend not eating while watching these videos

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the first two videos released by the Center for Medical Progress purporting to show senior Planned Parenthood officials selling fetal body parts in violation of the law. After watching them, I came to the conclusion that there was no proof that PP had broken the law, even though there were some questionable ethics on display. I even wrote that the Center for Medical Progress was breaking the law by engaging in fraud. However, in the last two weeks, three more videos have been released, and I've put some research time into the underlying legal issues following multiple attempts to put an abrupt end to the story both in the courtroom and in the newsroom.

The first thing I've realized is that the Center for Medical Progress is not in any obvious breach of the law. The recordings were done in public spaces, where it is perfectly legal to record and later distribute such footage, and the misrepresentation of identities is not, in and of itself, illegal. Much as PP's offers to sell fetal body parts for a small compensatory fee is technically legal, so is the CMP's investigative journalism. Indeed, such misrepresentation and distribution of hidden camera footage is fairly routine in this day and age, and the Supreme Court has consistently denied the principle of prior restraint having any bearing on free speech. Even if the CMP signed non-disclosure agreements before doing any recording, that agreement would be overridden by the CMP's freedom of speech (although a California judge recently ruled otherwise).

Lisa Ling
If undercover journalism is illegal, then Lisa Ling is an international fugitive from justice

Secondly, the political side of the equation has spiralled completely and utterly out of control. Senator Joni Ernst (and others) introduced legislation to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood and siphon those funds to other women's health clinics. Democrats immediately pounced on the GOP, dusting off the "war on women" rhetoric and claiming that any attempt to defund Planned Parenthood was tantamount to denying women access to healthcare altogether. As a result, the Senate failed to achieve the sixty votes it needs to overcome a minority filibuster, and the legislation died.

This is ridiculous on multiple levels: (1) in the grand scheme of federal dollars being spent, the money that goes to Planned Parenthood doesn't even equate to a molecule of a dent, nor is it even a major part of PP's budget; (2) the bill doesn't actually do away with any federal funding--it simply reallocates those funds to other clinics; (3) despite what the Democrats seem to believe, women have more access to affordable healthcare than ever before, and axing federal funding for Planned Parenthood wouldn't change that in the slightest; and (4) it also wouldn't end abortion, as the GOP seems to believe it would. To say both parties have blown the facts completely out of proportion is to understate the reality.

Again, the political discourse in this country is drawn to two extremes that refuse to accept any nuance or shades of grey. Either Planned Parenthood is a fountainhead for good that is being unjustly smeared, or it is the epitome of moral depravity and evil that is finally being exposed. May the country forgive me for believing that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. With that in mind, let's dive into two of the latest videos released by the Center for Medical Progress. (All the videos--and the raw, unedited footage they come from--can be found at the CMP's website.)

Savita Ginde
I'm pretty sure that a delivered fetus is technically referred to as a "baby," not an "intact specimen"

In the first of these videos, Dr. Savita Ginde, the Vice President and Medical Director of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, talks to actors who are once again posing as reps from a company that deals in "fetal tissue procurement." This video is different from the previous ones in that it appears to take place in Dr. Ginde's office and workplace, which does raise some worthwhile legal questions about whether CMP is in the clear for releasing this footage; it's a private space, and the laws are different than they are for a public space.

As the video opens, Dr. Ginde talks about how it's better to sell the "items" piecemeal rather than in bulk--because it would be easier to "see how much [PPRM] can get out of it"--and voices concerns about getting "caught." She then discusses how PPRM routinely gets three to seven second trimester abortions every day, with roughly ten percent of those yielding "intact specimens." The disturbing bit starts when she describes scenarios where "someone delivers before [PPRM doctors] are able to see them for a procedure"--a situation she confesses they "try" to avoid--in which case, the "specimen" would be "intact." In case that's too obtuse for you, she's saying that babies born before the mother can come into PP for an abortion are considered "intact specimens" that PP can donate. Next, she casually goes on to discuss how often she sees entire brains sucked out of partially-birthed fetuses at the 17 or 18-week mark, and other lovely things like that.

She also talks about how, if other Planned Parenthood offices get involved in the deal being proposed, they would have to disclose that to each other so that they "keep the stories straight" and can plausibly deny it if one office "gets called out or runs with it." She also stresses that, on the books, it would have to look more like "research" than a "business venture." She also talks about her confidence in her lawyer, who knew how to handle things when "we were like, 'we don't want to get called on...selling fetal body parts across states.'" After that, it gets really disturbing, because the video actually shows Dr. Ginde's medical assistant sorting through aborted body parts, while Dr. Ginde offers such amusing insights as "it's a baby" and "everyone's trying to get in on it." The assistant even exclaims, "It's a boy!"

It's a boy!
Not an appropriate thing to say at an abortion clinic

The Ginde video is far more damaging to PP than the previous two, not because it catches any illegal activity per se, but because it shows PP's willingness to skate at the thin edge of the law. If there were nothing legally troubling going on, why would Dr. Ginde be so concerned about keeping stories straight and getting caught? Perhaps she's concerned about nothing more than the political ramifications of such revelations, but her tone suggests otherwise. And again, it's the casualness of it all that is so unnerving.

The next video deals mostly with Melissa Farrell, Director of Research for Planned Parenhood Gulf Coast. She very freely admits to the actors that PPGC, when specific tissues are requested, alters protocol to fit those needs. She says it's not unprecedented for doctors to change their procedures specifically to maximize the viability of the organs and tissues, as a few of PPGC's doctors have been able to collect specimens for "their own research." She very rationally points out that procedures done later in the gestational process would be more expensive, requiring more money in order to recoup expenses. Then there's a bunch of financial talk--mostly coming from the actors--which eventually culminates in Farrell's admission that intact fetuses (or the various pieces of fetuses) that are collected and donated are "just a matter of line items" in the budget.

Before I move on to the second half of the video, I'll just point out that nothing Farrell admits changes the conversation. Again, her comments raise very real ethical concerns, but there's no clear evidence of illegal activity going on behind the scenes at PPGC. If these videos are the best evidence the CMP has to offer, there's not enough to convict PP of wrongdoing in a court of law. It does warrant an official DOJ or FBI investigation, perhaps, but nothing more. Then again, maybe catching PP red-handed isn't the real goal here.

fetal body parts
Be glad this is a low-res image, and yes, that is a hand

The second half of the last video is easily the most disturbing footage the CMP has released. After talking about how all the day's "collections" were put in a bag, a medical technition remembers that there might be some specimens still available to look at. She pulls a red bag out of the freezer and then starts sorting through its contents, the fresh remains of an 18-week fetus. It is incredibly disturbing. I honestly almost threw up after watching it, and yet the people in the room behaved as though they were looking at and talking about a box of Legos rather than tiny hands, legs, eyes, and other body parts scattered in a pool of gore, blood, and viscera.

This is what CMP is going for: the shock value. And it works. As pro-choice as I am, it is impossible for me to divorce the unpleasant reality of abortion from the academic political concerns. I am outraged by people who shrug off these videos as a meaningless smear campaign without actually watching them or acknowledging the unpleasantness of the subject.

While there isn't any obvious illegal activity being shown, the ethical concerns are very, very real. Is it ethical to allow PP to make money off of fetal body parts? Is it ethical for doctors to alter their procedures in the interests of maximizing potential profit rather than in the interests of the patient? Are there perverse incentives in the system to encourage abortion, encourage late-term abortion, alter medical procedures unsafely, or bend the law as much as possible? Is it possible--just possible--that PP has knowingly broken the law in order to make a profit? These are worthwhile questions that cannot be simply ignored because the politics are inconvenient or because the men and women in Washington are being a bunch of shameless demagogues, and they are questions that these videos demand we ask.

-e. magill 8/7/2015

  • The Planned Parenthood Videos, Part 3: Did Carly Fiorina Lie?
  • You Don't Have to Be Pro-Life to Find the Planned Parenthood Videos Disturbing