Pro-lifers are already calling it the end of Planned Parenthood. An undercover video released early Tuesday by the California-based Center for Medical Progress (CMP) claims to show Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola openly discussing the sale of fetal body parts with actors posing as prospective buyers:
“I’d say a lot of people want liver,” Nucatola says at one point, before describing how providers can conduct abortions in order to preserve fetal tissue for transportation.
Later, when the actors ask her about partnering with PPFA directly as a national organization rather than working with regional Planned Parenthood affiliates, Nucatola replies, “[A]t the national office we have a litigation and law department, which just really doesn’t want us to be the middle people for this issue right now.”
It’s a video that appears damning or, at least, it is certainly presented as if it is, complete with interstitial captions summarizing U.S. legislation surrounding human fetal tissue. Some right-wing outlets are already suggesting that Planned Parenthood is violating federal law and making ominous reference to the penal code, which includes a 10-year prison sentence and/or a $500,000 fine. Social media has exploded with accusations that Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue for a profit.
But although Nucatola’s comments raise questions about the acquisition of fetal tissue and the ethical issues surrounding its collection, the transfer of human fetal tissue is not illegal in the United States. Women undergoing abortions sometimes choose to donate fetal tissue for scientific research and abortion providers do not facilitate these donations without their explicit consent.
The law cited by the Center for Medical Progress—42 U.S. Code § 289g—2—prohibits the acquisition and transferring of human fetal tissue “for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.” A definition within the code notes that “‘valuable consideration’ does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”
In other words, transferring human fetal tissue is legal in the United States provided that payments are for processing and transportation costs.
When asked whether or not the video shows Nucatola discussing activities that are indeed criminal, David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress told The Daily Beast, “Planned Parenthood does not incur any of these costs,” referring to the “reasonable payments” in 289g-2. Daleiden further claims that one clinic he’s aware of “receive[s] payments for each specimen” despite partnering with a third-party that handles the transportation. He did not immediately provide documentation for either claim.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for PPFA, maintained that Planned Parenthood’s practices surrounding human fetal tissue are legal:
“In health care, patients sometimes want to donate tissue to scientific research that can help lead to medical breakthroughs, such as treatments and cures for serious diseases. Women at Planned Parenthood who have abortions are no different. 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. There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood. In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.”
Ferrero says the Center for Medical Progress is a “well-funded group” that has been “established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services,” further noting that similar accusations have been used on abortion providers in the past.
The donation of aborted human fetal tissue may come as a shock to a public unfamiliar with the practice but it is, in fact, a longstanding one. According to the American Society for Cell Biology, scientists have been researching human fetal tissue since the 1930s, with aborted tissue playing a part in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s development of the rubella and varicella vaccines in the 1960s (PDF). Ronald Reagan put a hold on using fetal tissue for transplants in 1988 while other forms of fetal tissue research continued and Bill Clinton subsequently lifted Reagan’s moratorium in 1993.
As of this writing, all content on the Center for Medical Progress website pertains to the undercover video and the project of which it was a part. The first blog post for the nonprofit was published on July 6 and refers to CMP as “a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances,” but the only project listed on the website so far is a “30-month-long investigative journalism study…documenting how Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted babies.”
Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has already announced that the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals will be investigating Planned Parenthood’s “alleged evil and illegal activity” in response to the viral video. In a statement, the governor said that Nucatola was “discussing the systematic harvesting and trafficking of human body parts,” practices which he called “shocking and gruesome.”
Correction: 7/14/15 8:16 PM: A previous version of this story referred to the Center for Medical Progress as “an offshoot of the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank.” The Center for Medical Progress cited in this article is not affiliated with the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Medical Progress, although it shares a name.