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Sam Sawyer, S.J. July 30, 2015

Editor’s note: this post will be kept updated as this story develops and will provide links to all of America’s other posts and articles on this topic.

Latest news:

On August 25, an eighth video was released, featuring an interview with the CEO of a tissue procurement company detailing their relationship to Planned Parenthood. 

On August 19, a seventh video was released, detailing practices that would seem to violate the federal ban on partial birth abortion.

On August 4, America posted an editorial on this issue, "Selling the Unborn."

Understanding the Story

The Moral Issues

Understanding the Story

What’s the story?

On July 14, the Center for Medical Progress began releasing a series of undercover videos that examine Planned Parenthood’s involvement in harvesting organs and tissues from the bodies of aborted fetuses, and accuse them of “selling baby parts.” To obtain these videos, actors posed as representatives of a tissue procurement and processing company similar to ones Planned Parenthood already partners with.

C.M.P. has explained that they have a large stockpile of footage and that they plan to release “around 12” videos in total. Initially, they appeared to be following a weekly schedule with new videos being released on Tuesday mornings, but more recent videos have not followed a consistent release schedule.

In response to the videos, a number of congressional committees have begun investigations into Planned Parenthood’s practices, and some lawmakers are calling for Planned Parenthood to be defunded. Some state-level investigations have also been launched.


  • July 14: Release of first video. The video depicts a conversation with Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
    Related: our post on the first video, and our post reviewing the unedited footage.
  • July 16: Cecile Richards, the president of P.P.F.A., releases a video statement responding to the undercover videos; various Congressional and state-level investigations are announced.
  • July 21: Release of second video. The video depicts a conversation with Dr. Mary Gatter, president of the medical director’s council of P.P.F.A.
    Related: our post on the second video.
  • July 28: Release of third video, called "Human Capital – Episode 1." The video depicts an interview with Holly O’Donnell, a former tissue procurement technician with StemExpress (a company that Planned Parenthood partners with for tissue procurement and processing). It includes graphic footage from within a clinic in which staff show the C.M.P. actors, who are posing as buyers, the type of tissues and organs they can recover from an aborted fetus.
  • July 29: Los Angeles Superior Court grants a temporary restraining order barring C.M.P. from releasing video of three executives of StemExpress, pending a hearing scheduled for August 19.
  • July 30: Release of fourth video. The video depicts a conversation with Dr. Savita Ginde, medical director for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and further graphic footage of dissection of aborted fetuses for specimens.
  • July 31: The U.S. District Court in San Francisco grants a temporary restraining order barring C.M.P from releasing video of National Abortion Federation meetings, pending a hearing scheduled for August 3; at that hearing, the restraining order was extended to August 27, when a hearing will be held concerning a permanent injunction.
  • August 3: A Senate bill to defund Planned Parenthood fails to cross the 60-vote threshhold to defeat a Democratic filibuster.
  • August 4: Release of fifth video. This video depicts a conversation with Melissa Farrell, director of research for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, and additional graphic footage of the examination of an aborted fetus.
  • August 12: Release of sixth video, called "Human Capital – Episode 2." This video continues with footage of an interview with Holly O'Donnell, also featured in the third video, discussing the particulars of how she was directed by StemExpress as to what tissue to obtain and assisted by Planned Parenthood clinic staff. Ms. O'Donnell alleges in this video that tissues were often obtained from aborted fetuses even when consent had not been given by the woman having the abortion.
  • August 19: Release of seventh video, called "Human Capital – Episode 3." This video continues with footage of an interview with Holly O'Donnell, also featured in the third and fifth videos, and clips from the meeting with Dr. Deborah Nucatola. The video outlines an approach to tissue and organ procurement that appears to violate the federal ban on partial birth abortion and includes a graphic image of an intact fetus.
  • August 25: Release of eighth video featuring a secretly recorded conversation with Cate Dyer, the CEO of StemExpress, a company that procures fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood. Interviews with Holly O'Donnell, a former employee of Stem Express, are features in the sixth and seventh videos. Dyer says her company likes working with Planned Parenthood because "they're a volume institution."  

What do the videos show?

The first two videos are edited versions of much longer, secretly recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood physicians, Dr. Deborah Nucatola in the first video and Dr. Mary Gatter in the second, in which they discuss partnering with the tissue procurement company represented by the actors. These videos show the physicians discussing both the range of compensation for Planned Parenthood’s participation in procuring tissue from abortions and the various ways in which they could manage abortions in order to obtain the most desirable tissues. In addition to the edited versions, C.M.P. simultaneously released the unedited footage and transcripts of the longer conversations.

The third video has more of a documentary style, and is titled "Human Capital – Episode 1." It is structured around an interview with Holly O'Donnell, who explains that she once worked as a tissue procurement technician for StemExpress, working directly in Planned Parenthood clinics to obtain tissue from abortions. It also includes graphic undercover video in which fetal remains are examined, apparently as a demonstration for the actors posing as representatives of a tissue procurement company, and the evaluation of these remains to determine whether or not they are sufficiently intact to be valuable.

The fourth video contains more graphic footage from the same demonstration of the dissection of an aborted fetus as in the third video. It also contains footage from a conversation with Dr. Savita Ginde at that clinic. In this conversation, the physician and the actors discuss strategy for keeping Planned Parenthood within the legal limits allowed, but also discuss a per specimen compensation arrangement for organs and tissues obtained from abortions. A day after releasing the edited video, C.M.P. released the full, unedited footage of the conversation with the physician.

The fifth video follows the pattern of the fourth. It consists of conversations with a Planned Parenthood official, Melissa Farrell, at an affliate clinic in Texas, followed by graphic footage of examination of fetal remains for the actors posing as representatives of a tissue procurement company. In the video, the actors and Ms. Farrell discuss the possibility of encouraging physicians to "alter our process" to obtain fully, or at least substantially, intact fetal cadavers in order to make it easier to obtain specimens. They also discuss the "diversification of revenue stream," getting "creative" about when they can make adjustments for tissue procurement needs, and how to build in higher compensation amounts for more intact specimens.

On August 6, two days after the initial edited fifth video, the full unedited footage (totalling 5 hours 45 minutes) was released, along with a transcript. From a review of the transcript and full footage, the actors spent most of day meeting with Ms. Farrell, and their conversation continued through lunch, which explains how video from two different settings was edited together into the short video. The press release that accompanies C.M.P.'s video focuses on a quote about the arrangments for specimens being "just a matter of line items"; however, reviewing the transcript and full footage, the "line items" relate to the specific processes required to obtain tissue from a (more intact) fetal cadaver rather than the implication of fetal parts being listed as line items for sale.

The sixth video, titled "Human Capital – Episode 2," continues the interview with Ms. O'Donnell, who had worked as a tissue procurement technician, first featured in the third video. She describes how she was directed by StemExpress as to which tissues to focus on obtaining and how she cooperated with Planned Parenthood clinic staff to identify patients to approach to request their consent to take tissues from their aborted fetuses. Ms. O'Donnell alleges that she was directed by StemExpress management to pressure patients to consent to tissue procurement, and that other StemExpress technicians would sometimes take tissue from abortions despite lacking the patient's consent, especially when the patient was at a stage of gestation when the fetal tissue was particularly desired by StemExpress. 

The seventh video, titled "Human Capital – Episode 3," continues the interview with Ms. O'Donnell, formerly of StemExpress, and includes clips from CMP's interview with Dr. Deborah Nucatola of Planned Parenthood. Dr. Nucatola details ways in which a late-term fetus can be manipulated in the womb to deliver an intact fetus, which is more valuable. Ms. O’Donnell describes an episode in which a colleague at StemExpress called her into an examination room to inspect a fully intact fetus; she tapped on the heart and showed her how the fetus’s heart started beating. She says, “This is a really good fetus, it looks like we can procure a lot,” before showing Ms. O‘Donnell how to harvest the brain. Dr. Nucatola explains how many providers use drugs to “induce a demise” before an abortion procedure in order to avoid violating the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. Yet the case Ms. O’Donnell describes above would seem to violate that ban, because the fetus was not injected with drugs prior to the abortion procedure, because the provider, it seems, wanted to insure the integrity of the fetal organs. 

The eighth video higlights a few notable quotes from a secretly recorded conversation with Cate Dyer, CEO of StemExpress. Her company, she explains, is looking to work with providers who can generate high volume, and few can rival Planned Parenthood: "I mean Planned parenthood has volume, they're  a volume institution." When her interlocutors press her on what kind of "volume" she is looking for she replies, "Another 50 livers a week." She also notes that her company has processed "a lot" of "intact cases," referring to fetuses and that some people they work with are queasy about the tissue they provide. She points to academic institutions in particular: "It's almost like they don't want to know where it comes from."     

Is Planned Parenthood “selling baby parts”?

Planned Parenthood is definitely receiving some financial compensation for their participation in this process; whether or not that compensation should be described as a “sale” and whether or not it violates the relevant federal law against sale of human fetal tissue is more complicated. The law forbids receiving “valuable consideration” for human fetal tissue, but allows compensation for “actual costs” involved in obtaining, processing and transporting it. Both the physicians in the videos and Planned Parenthood responding to the videos claimed that they are only receiving compensation for costs and not seeking or realizing any profit from their involvement in this process. In contrast, C.M.P. claims that their videos reveal Planned Parenthood officials negotiating for the sale of particular fetal parts.

In the first two videos, the range of compensation discussed is between $30 and $100, without specifying whether the compensation is per abortion or per specimen, and the undercover actors are usually introducing and leading the discussion of amounts. The third and fourth videos, however, make it clear that these amounts are per specimen obtained, rather than per abortion processed for tissue, as the actor says that they would rather pay per specimen than a flat fee, and a Planned Parenthood physician agrees, “I think the per-item thing works a little better, just because we can see how much we can get out of it.

It is at present unclear how large and important the revenue stream from such “compensation” for tissue obtained from aborted fetuses is within Planned Parenthood’s overall financial structure.

Are these videos deceptively edited (and who is behind C.M.P.)?

Many questions have already been raised about the possibility of “deceptive editing” of the first two videos, even though C.M.P. released the full, unedited footage and transcripts alongside their shorter videos. We examined this question in more detail regarding the footage from the first video. In short: the edited versions minimize the degree to which the physicians try to emphasize the distinction between compensation for costs involved in donation and sales, and attempt to make it seem that Planned Parenthood is directly negotiating prices for tissue, when the physicians in the unedited footage make some effort to avoid that appearance. However, the editing has not put any words into the mouths of the physicians; it has instead highlighted the most shocking statements from the conversations.

C.M.P. has released unedited footage and transcripts of the conversations with Planned Parenthood officials.

Further questions could be raised about the third and fourth videos, especially regarding the legality of the conditions under which the undercover video of the examination of fetal remains from inside a clinic was obtained. Additionally, while the video runs the b-roll of the in-clinic footage over the ex-technician’s description of similar events during her initial training at a clinic, it is not video of her training, but of a separate interaction between the actors and clinic staff.

In the case of the fifth video, C.M.P.'s edit and press release focused on a quote about particular specimens being "just a matter of line items." Based on a review of the transcript and unedited footage, this appears to have been pulled out of context; it is describing establishing line items in a budget for the different processes that would have to be conducted for harvesting tissue from a more intact fetal cadaver, rather than the implication that the "line items" were being listed for sale.

Both the third and the sixth video rely on an interview with Holly O'Donnell, a former tissue procurment technician who worked for StemExpress. The sixth video consists entirely of her interview, with some minor b-roll footage in a few places. C.M.P. has not provided any further evidence to back up her descriptions of StemExpress's methods or Planned Parenthood's cooperation with them—of course, C.M.P. is also currently prevented by a temporary restraining order from releasing footage of any conversations with the StemExpress executives.

C.M.P. describes itself as a “group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances”; Planned Parenthood has denounced them as a “well funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services.” Prior to releasing these videos, C.M.P. had no public activity or online presence, but had been registered as a non-profit for several years. C.M.P.’s founder, David Daleiden, has long been a pro-life activist and once worked for Live Action, which also used undercover videos to attack Planned Parenthood; those videos were also critiqued as deceptive.

Are these videos illegal (and what about the restraining orders)?

Two restraining orders have been issued against C.M.P.; neither one directly involves Planned Parenthood. While under the restraining orders, C.M.P. has continued releasing videos of conversations with Planned Parenthood officials and examination of fetal remains from inside Planned Parenthood clinics; this footage is not covered by the restraining orders.

Late on July 29, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order barring C.M.P. from releasing any video of three executives from StemExpress, one of the companies that Planned Parenthood partnered with to process tissue donations, pending a hearing scheduled for August 19.

On July 31, a U.S. district court judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order preventing C.M.P. from releasing any footage or indeed any information gained from their attendance at National Abortion Federation meetings, posing as representatives of a tissue procurement company. The N.A.F. is an assocation of abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood affliates. At an August 3 hearing, the temporary restraining order was extended until August 27, pending a hearing on a permanent injunction.

The legal issues involved in the restraining orders, particularly whether or not C.M.P.'s right to release the videos is protected by the First Amendment, are complicated.

If it’s not illegal, why are people so concerned?

Even if the videos don’t definitively establish Planned Parenthood’s involvement in illegal sales of fetal tissue, they raise extremely disturbing questions about how that tissue is obtained. In the first video especially, the physician goes into detailed discussions of how an abortion procedure can be managed to maximize the recovery of particular fetal tissues. She describes (over lunch, while eating) performing abortions with ultrasound guidance “so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.” She also describes how a pregnancy might be converted to breech positioning so that the chance of obtaining an intact calvarium (the fetal skull, containing the brain) is enhanced.

The other videos reinforce the fact that Planned Parenthood physicians, whether or not they are motivated by profit, are willing to treat the bodies of fetuses as sources for parts, carefully planning how to destroy the fetus in order to accomplish the abortion without destroying the fetus’s liver or lungs or even head, so that its organs and tissues can be recovered.

Even if this is not technically illegal, the callous dehumanization of an unborn human fetus is immoral; we turn to those issues next.

The Moral Issues

As a Jesuit ministry, America is of course firmly opposed to abortion and committed to standing for the unborn and with women facing unplanned pregnancies. The moral analysis below is guided by the Catholic Church's consistent defense of human dignity at every stage of life. We have published an editorial responding to the practices revealed in these videos.

The commodification of unborn bodies and women’s choice to donate

The political discussion, and Planned Parenthood’s explanations and defense, have focused on the question of illegal sales. As important as those questions are, however, they are tangential to the real moral question raised by these videos: the question of the commodification of the bodies of aborted human fetuses. From this perspective, whether Planned Parenthood is receiving $75 dollars per specimen or $1,000 or even $5 is beside the point. Planned Parenthood is being compensated for treating the body of an aborted fetus as a source for parts, and they are responding—rationally, if one is already committed to denying the dignity of the unborn child—by maximizing the value of a rare and scarce resource. The great moral tragedy is that what makes these tissues uniquely valuable, the fact that we share with the fetus a common humanity, is precisely what is being denied in the process of obtaining them through abortions.

The biggest problem, then, is not that Planned Parenthood is profiting; this would be a moral crisis even if Planned Parenthood were losing money on every “tissue donation” they participated in. Especially in the first video, the physician insisted that Planned Parenthood was merely trying to facilitate the choice of the woman having the abortion to donate tissue from it. She explained that many women are “happy to know that there’s a possibility for them to do ‘this extra bit of good.’” No doubt that many women, faced with the difficult circumstances that led them to have an abortion, are relieved to hear that some apparent good can be achieved by donating tissue from the abortion for research. But the videos make it clear—even if one does not believe that abortion is wrong—that behind the scenes, once the abortion is completed and the donation is being processed, Planned Parenthood is no longer motivated by the wishes of the mother, but instead focused on accommodating the needs and goals of the tissue procurement company and the demands of its market.

The problem is that all of us are now seeing, without any buffer, where the faulty moral logic necessary to justify abortion leads. At that extreme end, when a technician is looking for tissue, there is no longer any discussion about the needs or rights of the women seeking abortions; there is no longer discussion about a woman’s autonomy in choosing to “donate” tissue from an abortion. There is no longer a consideration of the person, either the woman or the fetus. Instead, there is a dismembered 11.6-week-old fetus in a pie plate, its body already destroyed, now being scavenged for further value, in order to “see how much we can get out of it.”

If that disgusts us, it ought to. But it also ought to lead to a larger question: not only how to avoid and outlaw the practice of fetal tissue harvesting for profit, but of what consideration and compassion we owe the child and its mother both, beyond offering her the illusory comfort of “donating” the body of a child she feels unable to welcome into life.

C.M.P.’s undercover approach and editing of the videos

Planned Parenthood’s response to the videos has been to emphasize that their practices are legal and to criticize the videos themselves and C.M.P.’s tactics as deceptive and underhanded. The question about the legal status of the undercover recordings is complicated and likely varies depending on which state each recording was made in; it deserves further analysis.

In my post examining the unedited footage from the first video, I argued that “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.”

Since then, the further videos have added additional evidence supporting the accusation of “sales,” but, as described above, the specific legal definition of that term remains complicated. While I stand by my concerns about the way the editing of the first video minimized the physician's concern to avoid the language of sales, C.M.P.’s simultaneous release of the unedited footage and full transcripts of those conversations mitigates the charge of deceptive editing regarding the first two videos.

While C.M.P.’s tactics for obtaining the videos certainly involved deception, there is precedent for undercover work to obtain proof of illegal or immoral behavior that would otherwise remain hidden. In any case, the question of whether or not C.M.P.’s approach is justified is distinct from the question of the morality of what Planned Parenthood is doing. We can and should be disturbed by the revelations in the videos even if we are also troubled by how the videos were made.

America’s full coverage

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
norman ravitch
7 years 10 months ago
The issue is not selling body parts. That is not a moral issue. The moral issue is the practice of abortion and the time in a pregnancy when it becomes illegitimate and immoral. The body parts scandal is important because it raises the issue of what abortion is. And the role of this upper-class eugenics organization misnamed as Planned Parenthood. Planned Abortion Clinic is a more proper name for it. Is it not interesting that the only time upper-class women stoop to concern themselves with lower-class women is when abortion seems like a solution. A solution to what? A solution to the social question. And not a Marxist one but an elitist one. For these Park Avenue women abortion is a preferred alternative to social revolution.
alan macdonald
7 years 10 months ago
An abortion after conception is immoral. I am proud the Jesuits have taken an unequivocal stand on this murderous issue.
David Smith
7 years 10 months ago
Congratulations on reporting and analysis that adds much more light than heat to the debate.

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