For the past several weeks, videos have circulated painting Planned Parenthood in the most unfavorable light. At first glance, and without knowledge of the processes referenced, these videos make it look like the organization is gleefully profiting from the sale of butchered babies. This misguided conclusion has prompted massive outrage, much to the delight of the Religious Right. As a result, Congress is once more looking to defund Planned Parenthood altogether.
We won’t share the video here. There is absolutely no need to give the deceptive, inaccurate, and offensive piece of garbage a wider audience. If you feel the need to watch it for yourself, a two second Google search will reveal it. What we will do is explain why, exactly, this reaction is utterly absurd.
Post-abortion, the fetal tissue extracted during the process has to go somewhere. There are two options. It can be discarded using costly medical waste services, or it can be used for medical research. While Congress has explicitly banned the use of fetal tissue for medical research funded by the government, privately funded research can and does use such tissue — again, tissue that would otherwise be discarded. This is neither new nor without merit. As CNN explains:
Fetal tissue has been used since the 1930s for vaccine development, and more recently to help advance stem cell research and treatments for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Researchers typically take tissue samples from a fetus that has been aborted (under conditions permitted by law) and grow cells from the tissue in Petri dishes.
Many of the uses of fetal tissue — and much of the debate — are not new. “It’s just that the public is finding out about it,” said Insoo Hyun, associate professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University.
In addition, the ways that fetal tissue are allowed to be obtained and used are not new either, Hyun said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines on the topic in the 1990s.
One of the earliest advances with fetal tissue was to use fetal kidney cells to create the first poliovirus vaccines, which are now estimated to save 550,000 lives worldwide every year.
In other words, this tissue — which, once more, would otherwise be discarded — has for decades been used to research deadly and degenerative diseases, ultimately saving lives.
This is the sort of work that Planned Parenthood facilitates with their donation process. And, yes, money exchanges hands during this process, but it’s not a “sale.” This isn’t about buying a Lamborghini, contrary to what the video might want you to think. The compensation is to cover costs associated with the extraction and transport of the tissue in optimal condition for research. Such efforts require additional time, expertise, and labor. These costs can differ by region, where things like labor and transport expenses may vary.
While it may seem unsettling to see price tags associated with body parts or hear discussions about what the rate should be, those dollar amounts relate to what is required to successfully procure such tissue samples — again, in case you missed it, from tissue that was going to be extracted regardless of whether or not it was donated.
As we previously wrote, this is made clear in the unedited version of the original video. But others who should know better are siding with the critics. Before you let the dollar signs turn your stomach, consider what experts in the field told FactCheck.org:
“There’s no way there’s a profit at that price,” said Sherilyn J. Sawyer, the director of Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s “biorepository.”
Jim Vaught, president of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories and formerly the deputy director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research, told us in an email that “$30 to $100 per sample is a reasonable charge for clinical operations to recover their costs for providing tissue.” In fact, he said, the costs to a clinic are often much higher, but most operations that provide this kind of tissue have “no intention of fully recovering [their] costs, much less making a profit.”
Carolyn Compton, the chief medical and science officer of Arizona State University’s National Biomarkers Development Alliance and a former director of biorepositories and biospecimen research at the National Cancer Institute, agreed that this was “a modest price tag for cost recovery.” Compton told us in an email: “‘Profit’ is out of the question, in my mind. I would say that whoever opined about ‘profit’ knows very little about the effort and expense involved in providing human biospecimens for research purposes.”
Objectively, the claims being made in these videos are bogus, intended to elicit a reaction without consideration of the facts. But what of the bereft phlebotomist featured in the film? What of her discomfort? What about what she saw and heard? All of these questions are answered by her very profession. She was exposed to things of which she had no knowledge and drew erroneous conclusions as a result. She wasn’t well-suited for the work and was incredibly unhappy. That’s okay. We’ve all had jobs we didn’t like. It’s just not an argument against the work itself.
The most twisted part of all of this is that this hack job of a “documentary” has brought calls to defund Planned Parenthood to a fever pitch. It doesn’t matter that abortion only accounts for about 3% of their services, nor does it matter that surgical abortion — the only form relevant to the tissue donation — is becoming increasingly rare due to the availability of medicinal abortion. It doesn’t matter that federal funding has absolutely nothing to do with abortions performed by Planned Parenthood due to existing federal laws. It doesn’t matter that the other 97% of Planned Parenthood’s work focuses on women’s health, birth control, cancer screenings, education, and more. It doesn’t matter that defunding Planned Parenthood could cause hundreds of clinic closings across the nation, leading to fewer reproductive choices for women, an increase in unwanted pregnancies due to lack of birth control access, and an increase in the amount of desired abortions.
Reality has no place in the land of the Religious Right. This whole childish, willfully ignorant gambit proves it. Why? Even if the effort makes its way through Congress, there is approximately no chance that President Obama will sign the bill, and the numbers are just not there ahead of an election season to override a veto. Conservatives are already playing with fire by antagonizing the massive base of support for Planned Parenthood, and they wouldn’t be able to afford actually defunding the group. As Bustle published in 2013:
Planned Parenthood has 8 million activists, supporters, and donators helping to ensure that the 72-year-old organization is able to continue its work. Their outreach programs help 1.5 million young people and adults each year. According to the CDC’s National Health Statistics Report, 54 million women ages 15 to 44 (or 99 percent out of those surveyed) said they have used contraception at some point in their lifetime. In its 2013-2014 annual report, Planned Parenthood said they helped 2.7 million women at their 700 nationwide health centers. In same report, the center reported $1,303.4 million in revenue including government, non-government, private contributions, which is a jump from $1,210.4 million in the 2012-2013 report. The support is absolutely there.
It’s one thing to vote symbolically for something that will never happen as you head into primary season. It’s another to commit political suicide by actually following through. Conservatives know full well that this is a third rail issue for them in so many ways. An override won’t happen.
So the film is trash. The push to defund is a charade. It’s all a waste of time. There is a silver lining in all of this, though. Even this symbolic vote will have consequences in the upcoming election season. Recent polling indicates that more than half of Americans now call themselves pro-choice, and even more believe that women’s healthcare (you know, Planned Parenthood’s primary focus) is important. If pro-choice candidates can effectively communicate the lunacy of this debacle and cast the efforts to defund as the anti-woman attacks they are, they may boost their chances of quashing the momentum of the Religious Right.
So go ahead fundamentalists, play your game. You won’t win this round, and you may even be knocking yourselves out before the next.