A cynical attack on Planned Parenthood

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has called for hearings into claims that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling body parts from aborted fetuses.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has called for hearings into claims that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling body parts from aborted fetuses. The Associated Press

Anyone who has agonized as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease claimed a loved one knows how desperately many Americans hope for progress in stem cell research.

And anyone who has ever needed birth control but lacked the means to afford it knows how valuable Planned Parenthood is as a community resource.

Unfortunately, an undercover video, shot by anti-abortion activists posing as biotech executives and edited for maximum shock value, threatens to create fresh waves of misunderstanding and new obstacles to public health and the science around it.

The Republicans controlling Congress should treat it as the polemical device it is and focus on debates that are less entrenched and toxic. But apparently, in an election season, that’s just too much to ask.

The video, which is as wrenching as it is misleading, shows Planned Parenthood’s senior director for medical services explaining how the group, which also performs abortions, proceeds when women donate aborted fetal tissue for scientific research.

The official, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, tells the “biotech” representatives with whom she is lunching, that the clinics pass the aborted tissue on to clearinghouses such as StemExpress, a Placerville business that supplies labs with maternal blood and fetal tissue.

Nucatola tells the representatives, who actually are actors, that Planned Parenthood charges about $30 to $100 for each fetal specimen, to cover the costs of preserving and transporting the tissue in accordance with complex state and federal regulations. The company, or in some areas, a nonprofit, then sells the processed tissue to researchers.

Nucatola’s frankness is cringeworthy, and the image of her discussing the demand for fetal liver cells while she’s sipping wine is a public relations nightmare for Planned Parenthood. Perhaps not coincidentally, the footage comes as congressional Republicans are plotting to kill a major source of its federal funds.

Predictably, Republican presidential candidates have fallen all over each other with denunciations and House Speaker John Boehner has called for hearings. But the charge that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal parts for profit is cynical and bogus. Planned Parenthood denies wrongdoing.

On Thursday, Kathy Kneer, who heads Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that the four clinics in this state that are set up to pass on tissue for research either charge nothing, or work from cost analyses drawn up years ago by clinic accountants.

And any politician who has had a pulse during these years of debate over stem cell research knows that, as science has broadened the use of manufactured and adult stem cells, embryonic tissue has become a smaller and smaller piece of the picture.

But embryonic cells still are crucial for some kinds of research; hockey legend Gordie Howe, for example, credits his dramatic recovery from a stroke to a radical treatment derived from fetal stem cells.

Abortion is one of the most fraught decisions a woman will ever make; no woman, regardless of her views, chooses it lightly. Yes, the ethics around it matter, and we all want to be vigilant about abuses.

But unleashing the culture wars on public health again, just to score cheap political advantage, raises some serious ethical questions, too.

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