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.)