What to Say to Your Crazy Relative Who Shares the Latest Anti–Planned Parenthood Video

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Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Demotix/Corbis

In the late '80s, a debate between anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates raged over whether it was ethical to use fetal tissue collected through abortions for research purposes. Those who were for it argued that as long as the woman having the abortion consented to the donation, the tissue could help clinicians make great strides in stem-cell research. Those who were against it angrily accused doctors of harvesting unborn babies so they could sell their body parts.

Twenty-five years later, we're still essentially having the same debate, but now we have Facebook to amplify the outrage.

On Tuesday, a video taken by activists from the group the Center for Medical Progress surfaced on the web, and it immediately sparked the ire of the anti-abortion lobby, provoking outraged hashtags and lighting up the conservative blogosphere. The video purports to show Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, Deborah Nucatola, discussing the sale of "baby parts" with actors from the Center posing as tissue researchers. "Planned Parenthood Uses Partial-Birth Abortions to Sell Baby Parts," blares the video's title. Of course, that's not exactly the case. Here's the deal:

Yes, donating fetal tissue is legal.

Under the National Institute of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are legally allowed to donate fetal tissue and organs obtained through induced abortion, as long as both the woman and doctor provide written consent and attest that the fetus was not conceived specifically for the purpose of gathering its fetal tissue. 

Fetal tissue has played an instrumental role in a host of major medical discoveries over the course of the last few decades. Many vaccines, including the Nobel Prize–winning polio vaccine, were developed using fetal cells. Unlike adult human cells, fetal cells can replicate "almost indefinitely," meaning you only need a small sample of fetal tissue to contribute a considerable amount of research. Fetal cells have been used in everything from Parkinson's treatment to the creation of insulin.

No, selling fetal tissue isn't legal.

The same law that legalized the donation of fetal tissue also declares it unlawful "for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce." So yes, if Planned Parenthood was trading fetal tissue for cash, that would be illegal. But of course, the organization isn't, because ...

It is both legal and standard industry practice to be reimbursed for the administrative and transportation costs of donating the tissue — which is what Nucatola is discussing in the video.

Tissue-donation costs for clinics range from $30 to $100, and they're allowed to seek reimbursement for those expenses. In the video, Nucatola makes clear that Planned Parenthood is not using fetal-tissue donation as a revenue stream. 

"This is not something with any revenue stream that affiliates are looking at," Nucatola says in the video. “This is a way to offer patients the services they want and do good for the medical community and still maintain access." 

By labeling the activists posing as researchers as "buyers" and having them inject terms like "dime a dozen," the creators of the video manipulate the situation to appear far more transactional than it actually is.

Planned Parenthood isn't the only health-care provider that donates fetal tissue.

"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," the organization said in a statement. "There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood."

In the end, if your wacky relative is anti-abortion, you're probably not going to come to a truce on this debate. Anybody who believes abortion is murder is going to find fetal-tissue donation especially heinous. And, admittedly, Nucatola's callous demeanor can be a little hard to stomach, even for the pro-choice among us; the brusque way she discusses the abortion process will likely only add fuel to the fire of the anti-abortion movement. But, as Amanda Marcotte put it in Slate, "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."

Planned Parenthood wasn't "selling baby parts" way back in 1987 — and this new undercover video doesn't prove it's doing that now, either.