The conservative media is aflutter thinking it has a “gotcha” against Planned Parenthood: a video supposedly exposing the organization for “selling” fetal body parts, which is against the law. The video, created by a group called the Center for Medical Progress but distributed and promoted by Live Action, shows Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services Deborah Nucatola at a lunch meeting with people who apparently pretended to be medical research organizers seeking donated fetal tissue. But of course, Nucatola’s actually dining with conservative operatives running one of the many “stings” that Live Action is built on promoting. (The organization has also attempted to scare people about Planned Parenthood’s acceptance of patients who practice BDSM and to portray sex-selective abortion as common when it is not.) But this isn’t evidence of wrongdoing. It’s another masterful piece of propaganda.
The video purports to reveal that Planned Parenthood is violating both the ban on a certain late-term abortion procedure called a D-and-X and the law forbidding the sale of fetal tissue. But there is no evidence from the video of either claim. Nucatola correctly points out that the “partial birth” abortion ban is confusing, which makes sense as it was written by anti-choice ideologues and not by people who understand medical science, making it open to interpretation. She does not say she violates it.
Nucatola also does not agree to sell fetal tissue. Eric Ferrero, the vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood, clarifies this in a statement. “At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does—with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.” He notes that there is “no financial benefit for tissue donation.” The prices that Nucatola cites, after being pressed to come up with a number in the video, likely refer to the “cost to transport tissue to leading research centers.”
But the legal accusations are just the fluff, easy to disprove and not really the point of the video. No, the real meat of the video is capturing Nucatola speaking candidly about the process of getting fetal tissue, which the heavily edited eight-minute “highlight” reel released by Live Action dwells on in great detail, in order to gross out the viewer. This is Live Action’s typical method: being as lurid and grotesque as possible to titillate its largely conservative audience. As William Saletan laid out in painstaking detail for Slate in 2013, Live Action really knows how to zero in on those gross medical details for maximum impact.
As someone who is squeamish, it was extremely difficult for me to listen to Nucatola talk about extracting liver, heart, and other parts to be donated to medical research. (I nearly fainted when a friend showed me the video of her knee operation once.) But people who work in medicine for a living do, in fact, become inured to the gore in a way that can seem strange to those of us who aren’t regularly exposed to it. She also thought she was speaking to people in her profession who would be similarly accustomed to this sort of thing.
Abortion is gross, no doubt about it. It becomes grosser the later in a pregnancy it gets. But so is heart surgery. So is child-birth, for that matter. We don’t deny people who need help in those cases because the help is gross. Nor should we deny people that help when it comes to needing abortion. We also shouldn’t deny women who want to donate fetal or embryonic remains to science any more than we would deny someone who wants to be an organ donor, even though the latter is also quite gross to ponder.
Live Action is, above all, a group of propagandists who roll out lurid and titillating videos to push an agenda that expands far beyond just trying to ban legal abortion. “We have noticed that the rise in the availability and use of cheap birth control coincided with increases in the rates of sex addiction, divorce, unmarried childbearing and abortion,” Lila Rose, the founder of Live Action, wrote in a 2012 Politico piece. In the same piece, she also declared that “the surest way for a young woman to attain stardom is by performing in and releasing pornography” and bemoaned “that something precious is lost when fertility is intentionally excluded from marriage.” This latest attack on Planned Parenthood is not just about abortion, but about demonizing an organization that makes sex safer and easier, while making it possible for women to plan when they have children.