Months of terrible headlines about the content of undercover videos—content even supporters like Hillary Rodham Clinton called “disturbing”—have taken their toll on Planned Parenthood. In its latest attempt at damage control, it decided it would no longer accept money in exchange for organs from fetuses killed via abortion.
Reactions have been predictable.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, says this removes any doubt about whether her organization “has a financial interest” in obtaining body parts.
David Daleiden, who created the videos, called the announcement an “admission of guilt.”
Both reactions, along with media coverage, have assumed that the central issue of the scandal was about how much money exchanged hands when Planned Parenthood provided body parts for research.
This is simply not true.
Though federal regulations specify there can be “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue,” the videos appear to show high-level officials haggling over prices.
Regardless of whether Planned Parenthood broke the law, this week’s move may take the wind out of the sails of those who want to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider because it purportedly sold body parts.
But this is not the only legal issue in play. Indeed, it may not even be the most important one.
Health and Human Services regulations and federal law strictly prohibit altering abortion procedures to better procure organs. But the videos contain clear discussions, from multiple high-level Planned Parenthood employees, of precisely this.
Art Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University, called what was discussed in the videos a “major no-no.” The welfare of the mother must be the only consideration. If it is proved that Planned Parenthood altered abortion procedures in order to procure organs, then it is in serious short-term trouble.
And the organization may be in even more trouble in the long term.
Traditionally, nobody has been better at circling the wagons, taking heavy fire and moving on than has Planned Parenthood. But this time something is different. The scandal and story, despite the assistance of a Cadillac crisis communications firm, just won’t go away.
Each week that the story stays in the news, we seem to learn new things that fly in the face of what Planned Parenthood would like the public to believe.
Richards said that Planned Parenthood does mammograms, but before a congressional investigative committee last month she was forced to admit that it does not. She had also said that abortion makes up 3 percent of Planned Parenthood procedures, but the videos revealed that a clear majority of the organization’s nongovernment revenue comes from providing abortions.
Furthermore, each new video released during the past several months seems to produce a new level of callousness on the part of Planned Parenthood employees. Notre Dame bioethicist Carter Snead put it well:“Watch the Planned Parenthood affiliates and staff talk about harvesting hearts, livers, brains. Listen to them talk about how they 'crush above or below' certain body parts to harvest viable organs. Listen to them talk about using a 'less crunchy method' of abortion to get usable organs and tissue. … Watch them talking about cutting through the faces of babies. Listen to them exclaim 'another boy' when they examine one child's remains.
All of this has taken its toll on public opinion. Back in 2012, Planned Parenthood was riding high: 55 percent of registered voters approved and only 22 percent disapproved. After the release of the videos in August, approval dropped to 46 percent and disapproval rose to 30 percent. September found even more slippage: Approval was 43 percent, with 38 percent disapproval.
There will be more congressional investigations. Republican presidential candidates will hammer the contents of the videos for the next year. The drip-drip-drip of the ugly reality of Planned Parenthood will, over time, disabuse the public of its positive views of the organization.
Defunding is a nonstarter in the current congressional climate, but the writing is on the wall for the long term. Americans are slowly but surely waking up to a new reality: Planned Parenthood's leadership is shady and dishonest, and the organization depends on the violence of abortion for revenue.
Furthermore, federally certified community health centers provide a nonviolent, comprehensive and affordable alternative for poor women. They also outnumber Planned Parenthood clinics at least 10-to-1. When asked, 72 percent of registered voters say that the 500 million tax dollars currently allocated to Planned Parenthood each year ought to be given to these community health centers instead.
Planned Parenthood has taken the dramatic step of refusing to accept money in exchange for fetal organs—a practice the organization has recently defended as both legal and praiseworthy. This kind of shift in policy is evidence its leaders are aware of the serious situation in which they find themselves.
But it will not be enough to stem the tide, especially in the long run. Planned Parenthood is in trouble.
Charles C. Camosy, who wrote this essay for Religion News Service, teaches bioethics at Fordham University and is the author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: a Way Forward for a New Generation. Twitter: @nohiddenmagenta