Planned Parenthood, fetal tissue donation, and the problem of the sacred cow

This post isn’t about whether or not abortion is wrong.

This post is about the rally of support that I have observed for Planned Parenthood after the release of several undercover videos by The Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group who sent undercover operatives in, posing as a fetal tissue procurement firm, to speak with high-level executives at Planned Parenthood.

Some say the videos are biased, heavily edited, and an attempt at defaming an important organization by people who want to make abortion illegal.

Some say the videos are blatant proof that Planned Parenthood negotiates fees for the sale of human organs and changes the standard of care for patients in an effort to get more money for “intact” fetuses.

I have watched two of the videos in their entirety and I believe that both of these things are true.

It seems to me like each individual’s reaction to the videos is completely linked to their personal feelings on abortion. People who are pro-choice are dismissing the videos as biased propaganda. People who are against abortion are seeing the videos as the final compelling evidence that Planned Parenthood is inherently evil.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a number of my friends write posts asserting their support for Planned Parenthood in the face of these videos. These are smart women I respect and admire, whose positions quite often match with my own. So as difficult as it is to push back against some dear friends, I have to say:

I’m uncomfortable with the unconditional support being given to Planned Parenthood because they have done good work, as if it cancels out the possibility of questioning their ethics on this matter. I’m uncomfortable with the people who shamed me for asking questions about Planned Parenthood because they’ve done so much god, or because people have positive personal experiences with them. Confession: so have I. Over the years I’ve visited them for annual exams and for birth control. I think these services are valuable and needed.

However, when it comes to human ethics, there should be no sacred cow. No matter how much good an organization or person has done, if they are doing something wrong, the wrong should be called out. (A lesson many of us learned with our beloved Bill Cosby.) Planned Parenthood is an organization made up of individuals and of affiliate offices that operate independently from one another. The videos suggest that some (not all) Planned Parent affiliates are engaging in  gray-area practices in regards to fetal procurement and sales. In the video, it is even acknowledged that most other affiliates don’t engage in these practices because they believe it is illegal.

The Center for Medical Progress released the unedited versions of all 5 of their videos. I watched 2 of them in full . . . the two I found most concerning (the first video and the fifth video.) I tried to watch without bias, and came away feeling uneasy on a couple levels:

1. I have no problem with the donation of fetal tissue or the use of fetal tissue in research. However, I felt that there were points in both videos where the discussions of pricing sounded like a negotiation for market value rather than a discussion of recouping costs for storage and shipment. In fact, there was no discussion of recouping costs or the specific costs of storage and shipment. In the first video with Mary Gatter, president of Planned Parenthood's Medical Directors Council, the negotiation was around “fair price” and in the fifth video,  Melissa Farrell, who directs research at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Texas, talks openly about how fetal tissue research has “diversified the revenue stream” for their affiliate. She also discusses different price points based on the desireability of the organs or the quality of the specimen. It’s clear there is a scale for the “fee” based on quality. Which, in my book, sounds more like a sales negotiation than a discussion around recovering administrative costs of a donation.

In the fifth video, there is also a discussion between three clinic workers about how to improve revenue by using different methods of pricing on fetal tissue. Again, the discussion is pricing, not reimbursement of costs associated with handling donations. This is an internal discussion on increasing the profit of tissue samples and not driven by the actors.

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2. The video also includes some conversations surrounding abortion methods that preserve fetal tissue compared with techniques that tend not to leave tissue intact—an ethical issue that raises questions about practices of informed consent from the patient. I felt that both executives displayed a willingness to alter best practice during an abortion in order to obtain a more intact cadaver. In the first video, Mary Gatter talks about dealing with the patient’s cooperation and pain tolerance in obtaining a more intact sample. Not best practice for the patient, but rather negotiating the patient’s well-being. In the fifth video with Melissa Farrell, these quotes in particular were troubling to me:

“Just depending on the patient’s anatomy, how many weeks, where it’s placed in the uterus … we’re going to potentially be able to have some that will be more or less intact and then some that will not be. But it’s something that we can look at exploring how we can make that happen so we have a higher chance.”

“And we’ve had studies in which the company, or in the case of the investigator, has a specific need for a certain portion of the products of conception and we bake that into our contract, and our protocol, that we follow this. So we deviate from our standard (of care) in order to do that.”

“If we alter our process and we are able to obtain intact fetal cadavers, then we can make it part of the budget, that any dissections are this, and splitting the specimens into different shipments is this. I mean, it’s all just a matter of line items.”

Altering the medical protocol of a late-term abortion to ensure the extraction of an “intact” baby so it can be sold, when it may not be best practice for the mother, is a feminist issue.

Planned Parenthood is an organization, not an ideology. I think it’s possible to support the ideology of Planned Parenthood while also entertaining the possibility that some arms of the organization may be engaged in ethical gray areas. And the unflinching support of Planned Parenthood, as if any critical analysis is full-on dissent, is frightening.

If the application of your ideology is abused, don’t defend it.

We can all maintain our personal views on abortion and agree that Planned Parenthood might be in need of some supervision. And in my opinion, those who support Planned Parenthood should be the most vocal in calling for course correction and making sure that the organization is ethically above-board. You can stand with Planned Parenthood and yet stand against padding the price of tissue donation to increase revenue or changing what technique is used in an abortion based on anything but the best interest of the patient.

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