Abortion rights opponents, including several Republican presidential candidates, have renewed calls to investigate and defund Planned Parenthood in response to a video showing the medical director of the organization talking, often in frank medical terms, about fetal tissue donation. The video was secretly recorded by a group called The Center for Medical Progress to do precisely what it’s doing right now: mire the family planning organization in costly and time-consuming legal scrutiny and use public squeamishness about medical procedures to undermine access to abortion.
We’ve been here before. Most recently, legislators have been using the idea that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks—a premise that has been rejected by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and researchers from Harvard University to University College London—to restrict abortion pre-viability. Before that, graphic imagery of late-term abortion and the (non-medical) rebranding of it as a “partial-birth abortion” resulted in a law banning the procedure.
This time around, it’s fetal tissue donation—an area of medical research being used to test therapies for Parkinson's Disease, among other things—that’s been weaponized to cut off access.
And the response from anti-abortion lawmakers was swift. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reacted to the video by announcing his state would be investigating Planned Parenthood clinics:
Today's video of a Planned Parenthood official discussing the systematic harvesting and trafficking of human body parts is shocking and gruesome. This same organization is seeking to open an abortion clinic in New Orleans.
I have instructed Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals to conduct an immediate investigation into this alleged evil and illegal activity and to not issue any licenses until this investigation is complete. I am also asking the FBI to assist DHH in investigating this alleged criminal activity by this organization.
His use of “harvesting” is strategic and meant to unsettle. The language of transplantation “tends to sound very cavalier to the non-medical audience,” Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics and the University of Wisconsin, told Fusion.
“When fertility doctors talk about 'harvesting' eggs, these words bring up a kind of cultural connotation and have been attacked over the years as treating individuals as though they are a natural resource and not people. The language tends to sound [jarring], but it is commonplace—not only in translation but in all areas of medicine.”
What the video shows—graphic details about medical techniques used in tissue donation and the costs associated with transporting that tissue to other medical facilities—isn’t the kind of thing that most people would expect to discuss over salad and wine, but it is the kind of thing that you might discuss over salad and wine with people involved in fetal tissue research.
“The language has not developed for the sensibilities of those [non-medical professionals] who are hearing it for the first time,” Charo said.
The video also alleges that the family planning provider is engaged in the illegal selling of body parts. Planned Parenthood responded with a statement defending its practices around tissue donation, emphasizing its legality, and the fact that the donation is not-for-profit:
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.
But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott followed Jindal's lead and announced that his state “will look into these organ harvesting claims.” Jindal has also used the video as a way to suspend offering a license to a clinic Planned Parenthood is planning to open in Baton Rouge.
What this means in practice: costly legal bills for the family planning provider and more political meddling into medicine at a time when access is already limited, particularly for low-income women and women of color.
Charo said these investigations are "costly" and mirror the "unnecessary construction, facility and credntial requirements"—TRAP laws—being passed in states across the country. "It is simply a way of draining time and resources away from clinics who are already straining because of a lack of financial support."
These efforts have succeeded in the past at restricting medical practices and shuttering clinics, but have done nothing to reduce the number of abortions or make the already safe procedure any safer, Alta said: “In fact, they made them more dangerous because these techniques [and facilities] are needed.”