Planned Parenthood videos are a ‘Trojan horse’, bioethicists say
The anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released a sixth video alleging that Planned Parenthood affiliates improperly handled fetal tissue samples, part of an ongoing series of videos used as ammunition to defund the healthcare organization.
But despite many hours of footage and troubling allegations, CMP has not offered proof of wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood’s part, prompting some bioethicists to call the videos a “Trojan horse” argument – claims that reveal more political slant than wrongdoing.
“What’s inside the horse is just the same old anti-abortion argument,” said Katie Watson, an attorney and assistant professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Watson said the videos cloak an anti-abortion argument in a bioethics controversy about the handling of fetal tissue. But the aim of the videos, it seems, has nothing to do with bioethics – those citing the videos want to end the roughly $500m per year in federal funding Planned Parenthood receives annually to provide healthcare services to women.
“Let’s have that debate about the moral status of a fetus or the ethical permissibility of an abortion and not put it in a Trojan horse of a false organ trafficking story,” said Watson.
This latest video strays further from the formula of past videos. It features Holly O’Donnell, an alleged former StemExpress Inc employee, who described discomfort working in abortion clinics and alleged that patients’ tissues were taken without consent.
O’Donnell claimed that the company obtained blood and tissue samples without the consent of patients – a clear violation of medical ethics. StemExpress denies the charge.
“Like all of their previous material, today’s video by CMP is deceptively edited and falsely worded to suggest impropriety or illegality where none exists,” the company said in a statement. The company did not confirm whether O’Donnell worked for StemExpress.
Each past video has alleged that Planned Parenthood sells human organs (or “baby parts”, as many anti-abortion politicians have put it) for profit. Planned Parenthood has categorically denied that it profits from the donation of fetal tissue to research. Researchers often obtain the materials through brokers which process the materials.
Past footage released by CMP followed roughly the same format: Planned Parenthood employees discuss the donation of fetal tissue, usually in the second trimester, usually in stark medical terms.
Probing and sometimes leading questions were asked by those impersonating the tissue procurement workers, the process for obtaining the fetal tissue and reimbursing the healthcare organization is discussed, the video gets a heavy edit and sometimes includes stomach-churning images of aborted fetal tissue.
“Nothing really new has happened despite the sort of hoo-ha every time one of the videos comes out,” said Arthur Caplan, head of New York University School of Medicine’s division of medical ethics. Caplan’s ethics articles influenced a 1993 addition to title 42 of the US code, the statute cited in the videos which prohibits selling fetal tissue, but does allow for certain reimbursements based on cost.
No video has provided evidence that Planned Parenthood is breaking that law.
In an editorial released on Tuesday, the New England Journal of medicine described the videos as “a campaign of misinformation about the retrieval of fetal tissue used in research and therapy is the excuse.”
“We are outraged by those who debase these women, this work, and Planned Parenthood by distorting the facts for political ends,” the editorial said .
Watson and other ethicists have argued that if workers at CMP was concerned about the way fetal tissue is handled, they would direct their focus to other problems and source of reform: procurement companies would be under the microscope, additional oversight might be recommended and statutory reforms proposed.
The solution defunding proponents have called for is not to re-litigate the ethics of tissue donation, but to punish those who provide such materials by revoking their funding. Already by law, no federal funds allocated to Planned Parenthood can be used for abortion.
And despite CMP actors’ apparently extreme access to Planned Parenthood, no footage of patently illegal activity has been published – just doctors speaking frankly, as many do, about a medical procedure.
“Substantively, they came away with so little,” said Watson. “From a PR angle, they came away with an angle, so they would say any win is a win.”
“They are sophisticated and educated and savvy and diligent. I mean, that was impressive. The security at these places is good, and at these conferences, they won trust, they won access, and they came away with so little – that must have hurt … To spend all that time to see Planned Parenthood is complying with the law, and medical ethics – that must have been a little depressing.”
Still, the argument has gained traction. It was debated in the first Republican presidential nominee debate, where contenders jockeyed to be the most anti-choice candidate. Governors (many of them also presidential candidates) have initiated investigations into the healthcare organization. At least one state’s governor, Louisiana governor and presidential contender Bobby Jindal, has canceled a Medicaid contract with the healthcare organization.
Researchers have come to the defense of scientists using fetal tissue for research, even though there have been no high-profile calls to end such work.
Perhaps most striking is that there has been no call to investigate or provide further oversight for brokers who profit from fetal tissue donations by processing and delivering the material to researchers. Rather, the singular call resulting from the videos has been to defund Planned Parenthood .
“I think it is a false debate,” said Caplan. “I think there are certainly questions that can be asked: are we getting the tissue in the way consistent with the law?” Caplan said as an example.
“If we had absolute assurance that Planned Parenthood was following the highest ethical standards in obtaining tissue, I don’t think the critics of Planned Parenthood would then go home and say: ‘Well, thank god we got that straightened out.’”
“Meeting people in restaurants to talk about fetal tissue issues – poor judgement I think. I’d meet them in a conference room with my lawyer,” said Caplan. But, he said, “the current expose or relevant the sting operation, they’re meant to abort Planned Parenthood, not check on or make sure that things are done properly with fetal tissue procurement.”
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