What Does the Planned Parenthood Video Show?

A secretly recorded conversation with the group’s medical director has ignited a heated debate over its handling of fetal tissue.

Steven Senne / AP

A video of Planned Parenthood's medical director discussing the harvesting of tissue from fetuses, released Tuesday, is at the center of the latest national controversy about abortion. Not only does the video raise questions about Americans’ comfort with the practice, but it quickly morphed into a metastory, with conservatives accusing liberals of ignoring clear evidence of immoral lawbreaking at the nation’s largest provider of abortions. That has quickly become the central issue: Is this another version of the Shirley Sherrod video, a misleadingly edited video taken out of context? Or is it more akin to the Kermit Gosnell story, a horrifying case that mainstream reporters ignored until they were forced to reckon with it?

In the video, Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, discusses harvesting tissue and organs from aborted fetuses over lunch in Los Angeles. While some previous “sting” videos like this have been criticized for misleading editing, the anti-abortion group behind it, the Center for Medical Progress, also posted a longer version, running nearly three hours. (The video doesn’t illuminate the conversations involved in setting up the lunch. Its makers apparently presented themselves as middlemen for medical researchers seeking fetal tissue.)

The story promptly exploded within the conservative-media sphere, but mainstream reporters were slower to pick it up, probably in part because of the difficulty of sussing out the video’s provenance and the legal issues involved. The Center for Medical Progress claims it shows that “Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted fetuses,” which would be illegal. Women who have abortions can choose to donate fetal tissue for research, and providers can be reimbursed for costs involved in that process, but they can’t profit. Here’s what Nucatola says early in the video:

I think every provider has had patients who want to donate their tissue, and they absolutely want to accommodate them. They just want to do it in a way that it’s not perceived as, ‘This clinic is selling tissue and making money off of this [inaudible].’ I know in the Planned Parenthood world, for example, they’re very, very sensitive to that. And before an affiliate is going to do that they need to—obviously they’re not—some might do it for free. They want to come to a number that it doesn’t look like they’re making money. They want to come to a number that looks like it is a reasonable number for the effort that is allotted on their part. I think for private providers, or private clinics, you’ll have much less of a problem with that.

There’s ambiguity in that statement. Planned Parenthood says she’s just discussing donations to recoup costs, and Nucatola’s caution about the organization seems to make clear that Planned Parenthood doesn’t tolerate sales. On the other hand, the way she describes the arrangements could easily be interpreted to suggest that the numbers are rigged, so that it seems like they’re just recouping when in fact they are a revenue stream.

Later in the video, she discusses possible amounts involved, ballparking figures between $30 and $100. But she also states, “This is not—nobody should be ‘selling’ tissue.” Perhaps the more damning remark isn’t about Planned Parenthood at all but about the private clinics; her comments imply unscrupulousness and possibly illegal behavior by those providers, but Planned Parenthood’s size and prominence makes it the prime target for pro-life activists.

All of this makes it tougher to believe the bluntest claim that Planned Parenthood, or even one top official there, is actually selling organs for profit. That hasn’t prevented immediate demands—from Ted Cruz, for example—for the government to investigate and defund Planned Parenthood for “profiting off the bodies of the lives they have stolen.” Multiple GOP presidential candidates issued statements expressing disgust with Nucatola’s comments.

But even if there’s nothing illegal, it’s easy to see how the video is a coup for the anti-abortion movement. The pro-choice and pro-life movements tend to talk about abortion in very different terms. Those who support abortion couch their argument in terms of women’s bodily autonomy, or in terms of a right to privacy. Abortion opponents sometimes use similar rights language, speaking of the rights of the unborn. Yet they also often use graphic images of aborted fetuses, for example, to highlight the visceral reality of abortion. There’s some debate about this practice among pro-life campaigners, but pro-choice activists acknowledge that abortion isn’t pretty and that there’s an easy disgust factor to it. (There’s a reason that although a majority of Americans favor legal abortion, a plurality also say it’s morally wrong.)

That’s what may make the video potent. Nucatola discusses the use of tissue from aborted fetuses, including the extraction of specific organs, over a casual lunch. That may strike many viewers as callous and inhumane. The disgust factor is real and important. For example, the activists posing as buyers ask Nucatola about the condition of organs after procedures. She responds with a detailed answer about how abortions are conducted to ensure good conditions. It’s not especially appetizing:

I’d say a lot of people want liver. And for that reason, most providers will do this case under ultrasound guidance, so they’ll know where they’re putting their forceps. The kind of rate-limiting step of the procedure is the calvarium, the head is basically the biggest part. Most of the other stuff can come out intact . . . So then you’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.

There’s a small cottage industry devoted to producing videos that showcase the emotionally wrenching side of abortion. The Center for Medical Progress, which produced the video, is headed by David Daleiden. Daleiden is a veteran anti-abortion activist who previously worked with Live Action. Live Action is the group led by Lila Rose, most famous for the video she made with conservative provocateur and filmmaker James O’Keefe, in which they posed as a pimp and an underage prostitute seeking an abortion at Los Angeles Planned Parenthood clinics. The latest sting appears to have been in the works for quite some time—a timestamp on the video released Tuesday says it was shot on July 25, 2014, nearly a year ago.

Planned Parenthood is a major target for the pro-life movement because of its size and national reach. The organization provides a range of family-planning and reproductive-health services in addition to abortion, and it receives a large chunk of its funding from the federal government, for the other services that it provides. It’s banned from using any federal money to provide abortions, but critics say the ban is functionally pointless, since funding is fungible. Republicans in Congress regularly attempt to keep federal money from going to Planned Parenthood.

In 2012, amidst a GOP congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, a leading breast-cancer non-profit, announced it was cutting ties. But the move backfired—Komen was harshly criticized, donations to Planned Parenthood actually increased, and Komen reversed course within days, leading to the departure of a top official who is strongly pro-life.

On Tuesday, Komen found itself back in the crosshairs. Citing the video, House Republicans pulled a bill authorizing commemorative coins that might have raised up to $4.75 million for Komen, because of its donations to Planned Parenthood.

Abortion is an unusual issue in American politics. Despite arousing some of the strongest emotions by advocates on both sides, and despite massive amounts of money spent, opinions about abortion have barely changed since Roe v. Wade in 1973. (Pro-life advocates have had better luck enacting abortion restrictions at the state level.) Whether this video is able to do what so many other past stories failed to do and move the dial will be the issue to watch in the coming days and weeks.