Updated: At the bottom of the original text, I have appended a response to commenters who read this post as a defense of Planned Parenthood.
Editor's Note: Yesterday I posted a blog about the initial news regarding a controversial video involving a Planned Parenthood official, in which I raised questions about the editing of the video. Since then, some readers, here and on social media, have continued to debate the way the video was presented. So, once time permitted, I reviewed the unedited footage.
The full, unedited undercover video of the conversation between Dr. Deborah Nucatola of Planned Parenthood and the actors from the Center for Medical Progress about obtaining fetal tissue from abortions and the transcript posted on C.M.P.’s site tell a different—but no less troubling—story than the one that has been covered in most of the news pieces about this issue.
C.M.P. promoted the story, and titled the video, as “Planned Parenthood uses partial-birth abortion to sell baby parts.” That title is, by any fair standard, wildly misleading. Within the longer video Dr. Nucatola explains that affiliated clinics understand tissue donation “is not a service they should be making money from, it’s something they should be able to offer this to their patients, in a way that doesn’t impact them.” In other words, the concern of the abortion clinics is not profit, but enabling fetal tissue collection or donation in a way that does not make their procedures more difficult and might make them easier. The most damning admission about money in the entire video is not quoting a price-per-specimen, but rather the admission that clinics “want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they’re happy to do that.” Even if interpreted uncharitably, this is a far cry from “selling” tissue from abortions.
Similarly, the fuller context of the video makes it clear that the very troubling discussion of how an abortion procedure can be managed to preserve viable desired tissue and organs is preceded by the insistence, due to ethical concerns, that the basic procedure cannot be changed to accommodate the collection of tissue: “kind of ethically I don’t think [abortion providers] want to do [change or prolong the abortion procedure], they basically want to treat the patient as they would any other, and again, it’s just the disposition of the tissue.” However, she also explains that “ if I know what [the tissue collection company is] looking for, I’ll just keep it in the back of my mind, and try to at least keep that part intact.”
What keeping it in the back of the mind turns out to mean, in further discussion, is to choose which parts of the fetal body to crush, in which order, to avoid destroying valuable tissue. It also turns out to mean—for some providers, though Dr. Nucatola does not admit doing this herself—inverting the unborn child to breech position so that the body itself will continue to dilate the cervix during the procedure, thus maximizing the chances that the head and the fetal brain can be extracted without being destroyed.
Among the long stretches of conversation entirely edited out of the short version of the video is Dr. Nucatola’s moving explanation of how she ended up focusing her practice as a physician on abortion, which starts around 2:10 in the full video:
And on that day [at the end of her gynecology residency], there was patient that was transferred to me, from an outside clinic, who had had a D&E, dilation and evacuation, late second trimester abortion, she was bleeding. That patient was transferred to me and she got to the hospital and I met her in the emergency room and I saw her and she was as white as this napkin, and I still remember her name, I remember everything about her, and she looked up at me, and she said, “Don’t let me die.” And she actually bled to death. We did a hysterectomy in about twelve minutes and she died. It was very distressing and very upsetting. I probably had a very different reaction than most people would, which was well I do D&Es all the time, and I don’t ever have complications. And I think I’m pretty good at them, I need to keep making sure that there are lots of people doing these D&Es safely so there’s not another patient like this. That was the day I said I’m not doing perinatology, which is high-risk OB, I’m going to do family planning, and I’m going to train others to do family planning.
What has been obscured by C.M.P.’s editing of the video for maximum impact—and what is almost always obscured in any public discussion of abortion—is that virtually no one on either side of the abortion debate has motives as demonic as their opponents would like. What is most tragic about Dr. Nucatola’s story, from a pro-life perspective, is that her grief for the patient she lost pointed her to providing less risky abortions, rather than to questioning abortion itself; that her compassion for the dying mother could not extend to the child the abortion had already killed.
Unfortunately, the way C.M.P. positioned this video, describing as “sales” something that is considerably more complicated, has simply reinforced, for many, the pro-choice narrative about pro-life activists: unscrupulous, dishonest players willing to do anything necessary in order to control and limit women’s access to abortion. The video’s revelations about the very matter-of-fact way in which fetal tissue from abortions is treated as a resource rather than human remains—and the way in which the women seeking abortions come to be seen as potential sources of these rare and valuable tissues—were more than troubling enough without being carefully sensationalized.
Our discussions about abortion would be in a better place if we could, as a society, be moved to be troubled about the disposition of fetal remains without having to be outraged by a carefully edited video. One of the reasons that we are not there, of course, is that defending abortion requires and encourages seeing the fetus as something undeserving of our concern, until we are finally shocked enough to take a second look.
C.M.P.’s edited version of the video, not to mention the undercover sting operation itself, is in many respects deeply unfair. Nonetheless, we do not need to defend the video’s production in order to be—properly and appropriately—shocked that a physician can discuss how best to harvest fetal tissue without ever appearing to be troubled by the fact that the fetus is human.
Updated in response to comments (July 16, 2015, 10:30 am):
A number of people in the comments here, and more on social media, have suggested that I am defending Planned Parenthood in this post. To my mind, that’s an inaccurate reading of this post itself, but the situation has been made worse by the fact that it seems that some people have not read my first post on this story, also linked at the top of the page, in which I more obviously critiqued Planned Parenthood.
To be clear, then: I believe abortion is obviously wrong and the harvesting of tissues from the bodies of aborted babies is abhorrent, and, needless to say, I don’t believe any defense is possible for Planned Parenthood’s participation in these practices.
C.M.P.’s video, however, accused Planned Parenthood of the illegal sale of human tissue, alongside citations from the relevant federal law. It seems that the only way they were able to do so was through selective editing of the conversation; a viewing of the unedited footage convinced me that while Dr. Nucatola was eager to help in obtaining tissue, she was not focused on profit or sales potential. Her motivations, at least as she described them, were more about enabling patients and clinics to feel that they were accomplishing something seemingly good after the abortions.
As this story unfolds and investigations are conducted, we may get more information about how deeply Planned Parenthood is involved in the financial arrangements made by the companies that collect tissue from abortions. At the moment, based on the evidence made available in the unedited footage, Planned Parenthood appears to be trying to assist in the process of procuring fetal tissue, but careful to remain outside anything that could be described as a “sale.” While it may be possible they are only superficially disguising something that is a sale, we are not at this point entitled to assume the worst merely because we distrust Planned Parenthood.
As I said in the post, our opponents in these debates rarely have motivations as wholly bad as we would think. In this case, in my judgment, the Planned Parenthood representative seems not to be a profit-seeking monster, but rather someone who has so thoroughly dehumanized the unborn child as to be able to consider it as a source to be dismantled for parts. That’s more than bad enough.
The problem with how C.M.P. edited the video is that it has helped convince many pro-choice people that pro-life activists are unscrupulous and dishonest. If we believe that we are called to help people come to see the truth, rather than just to provoke outrage, then we can’t accept this video uncritically. Nor can we accept Planned Parenthood’s defense uncritically. What we can do is watch the whole video and be honest about what we see. Only after that can we start making judgments about how to respond.
Sam Sawyer, S.J., is an associate editor at America.