Reproductive rights advocates, researchers and women’s healthcare providers appear to be holding their collective breath as officials in six states begin investigations into Planned Parenthood affiliates, following the release of a “sting” video by anti-abortion activists.
The video that stirred passions among abortion opponents shows Planned Parenthood medical director Deborah Nucatola discussing fetal tissue procurement over forkfuls of salad, as she describes the most in-demand fetal organs.
The video, however divisively edited, has served as a platform for conservative politicians to condemn the organization and launch a congressional investigation.
Meanwhile, the nervy anticipation surrounding the video’s policy implications in the fields of both women’s reproductive healthcare and medical research, has kept clinicians mum and advocates reeling. All this while the anti-abortion group that released the videos promises more from its “two and a half year logging” of “undercover footage” and “dozens of eyewitness testimonies”.
“The video is clearly designed to get an emotional reaction and far too often this area is not one that lends itself to lots of careful rational discourse,” said Sean Tipton, spokesperson for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “A careful analysis of the facts was not what this group was after, and we’ll have to see how interested Congress is in that.”
The National Abortion Federation president Vicki Saporta is more blunt: “They’ll make up something, you know, if they don’t have something to try to support their [anti-abortion] position.” She opined that tissue donations for the medical research of diseases such as Parkinson’s were swept up in what was truly an anti-abortion campaign.
Late Thursday, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards apologized for the tone of the video, but called “outrageous” the allegation that clinics were selling the fetal tissues for profit, in violation of the law. The tissues are the valuable research materials obtained from successful abortions, often processed by medical middlemen after they are obtained from abortion providers.
At least six state investigations have been launched by conservative governors, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. And a congressional investigation has been called for by Speaker of the House John Boehner . One-by-one, members of the vast Republican presidential field have piped up to condemn Planned Parenthood, which appears to be lawfully seeking reimbursements for the cost of processing and shipping tissues donated to science.
Even one bill only tangentially related to Planned Parenthood was re-engineered after the video’s release. The bill would have directed the government to mint pink-gold coins to fund breast cancer research, split between the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Susan G Komen for the Cure. In the final bill, House Republicans cut Susan G Komen out of an expected $9.5m in government-backed fundraising because of its donations to Planned Parenthood .
Research associations large and small have remained quiet on the video since its release. Members of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, for example, declined to comment to the Guardian on possible fallout from the video, as did the New York Stem Cell Foundation.
Some abortion rights advocates said the video would only help their cause, even when it was clear that it has galvanized a conservative, anti-abortion constituency.
“It just only increases the wind at our backs to continue organizing around the 70% of Americans who are with us on this issue,” said Sasha Bruce, a national coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice America, referring to the 63% of the public that supports abortion rights, a rate that has remained steady for decades.
Still, the potential for tangible policy implications remains very real, as does the possibility that promised future videos exacerbate the public relations woes that abortion providers began contending with Tuesday, when the video was released.
In the past, such sting videos have resulted in attempts, some successful, to defund other non-profit organizations. Likely the most prominent political sting video, produced by conservative James O’Keefe, led to the defunding of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as Acorn .
Congress passed a law barring the group from receiving funding soon after a video ( later debunked ) purported to show an employee agreeing to help a sneak underage prostitutes into the US. And NPR nearly lost its federal funding after an executive was filmed calling conservatives, especially Tea Partiers, “racist”. Even in the reproductive rights community, pro-choice lawmakers had to fend off a three-hour House debate to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011, after another sting video.
Most state legislatures are now out of session and will remain so until January, but at least one possible future target that advocates pointed to was the push toward so-called 20-week abortion bans. The first such ban, premised on the (at least) complicated theory that fetuses may feel pain at 20-weeks-old, was passed by Nebraska in 2010. Since then, 12 more states have followed the conservative stronghold’s lead as of January 2015.
And abortion-related controversies, though they may resonate primarily with the right, have variously stalled research funding since abortion was legalized.
“Vocal opponents of abortion had scarcely questioned fetal research (involving either the study of fetuses in utero or the use of fetal tissues) during the decade before the 1973 Supreme Court decisions legalizing abortion,” wrote then-public policy researcher Rachel Benson Gold in 1989. “However, right-to-life leaders seized upon fetal research as an issue after abortion was legalized, arguing that using fetal tissue obtained from induced abortions for research purposes was an extension of so-called ‘abortion mentality’.”
Benson Gold continued that while researchers had, at time, resisted another moratorium on the use of such materials, that the politicized environment was unlikely to change.
“The anti-abortion movement will continue to pursue its fight against abortion in any arena, including that of important biomedical research.”