The new big lie against abortion rights

July 30, 2015

Leela Yellesetty exposes the right-wing's latest underhanded scheme to discredit and defund the woman's health care organization Planned Parenthood.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD (PP) is the target of another smear campaign by opponents of abortion rights--proving once again that there is no low they won't stoop to in their quest to deny access to essential reproductive health care.

The latest manufactured "scandal" revolves around two videos, released on July 14 and 21 by a group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). The videos claim to expose PP's involvement in illegally selling fetal body parts for profit.

The highly edited videos contain footage from surreptitiously recorded lunch meetings with PP Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola and Medical Directors' Council President Mary Gatter, in which CMP supporters pose as representatives of medical research companies.

Right-wing media and Republican politicians--including virtually the entire band of GOP presidential primary contenders--leapt into action, calling the video "sickening" (Ted Cruz), "absolutely horrifying" (Scott Walker) and "shocking and gruesome" (Bobby Jindal). They unanimously demanded federal investigations and congressional defunding of PP.

Rallying to the defense of Planned Parenthood
Rallying to the defense of Planned Parenthood

As this article was being written, Rand Paul was scrambling to put forward a bill that would block all federal funds for PP, including Medicaid--with the goal of getting a vote before the August recess, though it's not clear if he will succeed.

While it's not surprising that the likes of Fox News and Republican candidates--who smell a lucrative fundraising opportunity--would uncritically embrace the video as evidence of some dastardly PP plot, unfortunately, much of the mainstream media also took the bait.

As Media Matters' Eric Boehlert pointed out, they really should know better by now:

Let's put it this way, when conservative activists release an undercover sting video that doesn't rely on dishonest editing to manufacture its point, it will be their first.

But the dismaying part is the formula works in the short term because too much of the media, drawn to the heat and the light of agitated conservative outrage, almost immediately types up the tapes as news despite the fact that for six years running, the established record shows that these types of tapes are regularly debunked.

The CMP videos are no exception. Ironically, the full footage and transcripts that the group itself released show exactly what lengths CMP went to in editing the videos in order to contort the truth.


RATHER THAN engaging in some sort of sordid black-market dead baby trade, the PP doctors in the video discussed at length the perfectly legal--and laudable--practice of patients consenting to donate fetal tissue for use in medical research. Fetal tissue is essential for research into causes and treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It was instrumental in developing vaccines for polio, rubella and chickenpox.

In a recent commentary for Time magazine, Katie Lyon described her decision to donate fetal tissue after the discovery of fetal abnormalities led her to terminate a wanted pregnancy at 22 weeks:

I feel fortunate that I had the chance to donate the tissue--I was able to turn my pain into something that could benefit someone else.

I want people who are politicizing the option to donate fetal tissue to think about the implications of removing this option. I want them to think about people suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and sickle cell disease--and to consider those people's family members who no doubt want their loved ones to live longer, fuller lives.

Why would anyone want to destroy the chance to save another person's life?

In claiming wrongdoing, the CMP cites a law, 42 U.S. Code 289g, that is intended to make such research possible by laying out legal and ethical regulations for securing donations. The rules for doing so are similar to those for other types of organ donations--patients must provide informed consent, and providers cannot profit from their provision. The law furthermore states that "no alteration of the timing, method or procedures used to terminate the pregnancy was made solely for the purposes of obtaining the tissue."

In the video, the CMP claims that PP is violating these last two provisions. But the allegation rests on extremely misleading editing. For instance, on the topic of PP supposedly bargaining on the "price" of a specimen, the video shows the following exchange:

ACTOR: The $30 to $100 price range, that's per specimen that we're talking about, right?

NUCATOLA: Per specimen, yes.

However, the CMP cut out a full eight minutes of the presentation immediately prior to this, in which Nucatola makes clear that these numbers are not prices, but compensation to cover expenses associated with providing the samples--such as staff time, space and transportation costs--which is explicitly allowed for under the law in order to make such research possible. In fact, Nucatola never refers to "prices" at all, but consistently uses the word donation and emphasizes that the purpose is not to make money.

At one point, Nucatola clearly says, "Nobody should be 'selling' tissue. That's just not the goal here." Later she states:

Again, affiliates don't--affiliates are not looking to make money by doing this. They're looking to serve their patients and just make it not impact their bottom line.

At the end of the day, we just want to keep the doors open. And we don't want to let this jeopardize keeping the doors open. We just want [the cost per specimen] to be reasonable for the impact it has on the clinic. This is not a new revenue stream the affiliates are looking at. This is a way to offer the patient the service that they want. Do good for the medical community.


THE OTHER supposed "gotcha" in the videos was PP doctors suggesting they would alter the procedure in order to secure better specimens. In particular, politicians were outraged by the supposed "cavalier" tone with which Nucatola describes means by which physicians can help ensure intact specimens:

So then you're just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we've been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I'm not gonna crush that part, I'm going to basically crush below, I'm gonna crush above, and I'm gonna see if I can get it all intact.

But while a frank medical description clearly sent the conservatives' "icky" meter through the roof, it doesn't seem as though Nucatola is describing an actual change to the procedure so much as how providers can ensure intact samples while conducting it. She later goes on to say:

Buyer: And so, if it's something as simple as converting to breech that doesn't require a separate consent? Does that make the procedure take longer? Is that another step for the provider?

PP: No, it's just what you grab versus what comes out. It doesn't make anything any different.

In the second video, Gatter suggests that using manual as opposed to electric aspiration may result in a more intact sample, and in her opinion, there is no problem with using one over the other. These are both the most common and safe methods of surgical abortion, and according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, "Overall effectiveness, patient satisfaction and complication rates are comparable" for both types.

Nonetheless, Gatter herself draws attention to the importance of following the technical requirements of the law and insists that she cannot to commit to anything without consulting the managing physician.

ACTOR: You're not putting the patient at any more risk, right? As you said.

GATTER: No. Just slight variation of the technique.

ACTOR: Okay.

LAUREL: Which, the consent they're signing is for suction aspiration, it doesn't describe what kind it is.

GATTER: Yes, but I have heard people argue that for the tissue donation, it says we're not doing anything different, so.

ACTOR: That's what I need to understand, because what I'm seeing it as, of course, I'm looking for intact specimens. You know from a medical perspective, the patient is receiving just as good of care. So help me understand the problem.

GATTER: Well, there are people who would argue that by using the IPAS instead of the machine, you're slightly increasing the length of the procedure, you're increasing the pain of the procedure, is it local anesthesia or conscious sedation, so they're technical arguments having to do with one technique versus another.

ACTOR: So it's technicalities, is what I'm hearing.

GATTER: It's something that I need to discuss with Ian, before we agree to do that.


FOLLOWING THE release of both videos, Planned Parenthood issued statements condemning the misleading characterizations and defending the organization's practice of facilitating fetal tissue donations. Unfortunately, PP President Cecile Richards also felt the need to apologize for the offensive "tone" of the PP employees in the video.

For her part, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton initially came out with strong words of support for PP, but now seems to be backtracking under rightwing pressure. In a recent interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader Clinton called the videos "disturbing" and agreed that there needed to be investigations, though not just of PP.

This is par for the course for Clinton, who claims the pro-choice mantle while maintaining that abortion is a "tragic" choice which should be "safe legal and rare." In the coming election she will no doubt point to the GOP's anti-choice politics as reasons to vote for her, while doing little but cave and concede to their outrageous attacks in practice.

But PP should not have to apologize for a destructive, deceptive, smear campaign aimed at denying women access to their reproductive rights. Rather than investigating the non-crimes of Planned Parenthood, the California attorney general is rightfully looking into the legality of CMP's fake business filings, as well as whether it violated the state's two-party consent law by secretly videotaping the meetings.

CMP head David Daleiden has a long and sordid history as an anti-abortion activist, including working for Live Action, another group that gained notoriety for its misleading video stings on PP. One of CMP's board members and secretary, Troy Newman, is also president of Operation Rescue, the group that ran a decades-long campaign of intimidation against Dr. George Tiller until one of its members murdered him in church in 2009.

An An infographic at RH Reality Check highlights the seedy web of connections between right-wing politicians, mainstream "pro-life" organizations and the extremists who stalk, harass and even assassinate abortion providers. What connects all these groups and individuals is a mission to roll back the clock on reproductive rights by any means necessary.

We can't let them get away with it. The ability to access the health care resources that Planned Parenthood provides--cancer screenings, STD tests, birth control and, yes, abortion--is fundamental to the ability of women to control their own bodies and lives.

That the right has to resort to such blatant lies and smear tactics to push their reactionary agenda betrays the unpopularity of their cause. But they will keep getting away with it unless our side pushes back unapologetically. As Lyon concluded:

After my abortion, I was able to become pregnant again. I gave birth to a healthy son, who's now eight years old. I am grateful that I was able to make my own decision about my reproductive health, and plan my family so that my son can grow up with the resources that every child needs. And I will continue to fight to make sure that these rights are not taken away from me and other women.

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