The anti-abortion activists targeting Planned Parenthood with undercover videos were going for shock value with their most recent release. They succeeded.
Viewers of footage shot surreptitiously in one of Planned Parenthood’s southern U.S. clinics see what’s inside a rectangular glass dish resting on a lab room counter. Its contents: pinkish tissue from the abortions performed that day, including at least one identifiable limb from a less-common, later-term abortion.
It’s a deeply disturbing image that one wants to turn away from but shouldn’t. This is the end result of a medical procedure that is legal — and should continue to be — but nevertheless leaves many uncomfortable and conflicted. Despite the bitter, decades-long national debate over abortion, there has long been considerable common ground when it comes to preventing the need for this procedure as much as possible.
That is a critical reason why putting Planned Parenthood in political cross hairs after these videos’ release is a serious mistake. This nonprofit organization is a leading provider of women’s health care, often in areas where patients may have limited access to care, particularly birth control, due to income or geography.
Stripping it of federal funding, much of which is provided through the Title X family planning program (by law these dollars cannot be used for abortion), would be an unconscionable step backward, potentially resulting in more abortions. Or, as the Congressional Budget Office warned recently, more children born to ill-prepared parents and in need of taxpayer-funded assistance programs.
Both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” should agree that neither of these outcomes are acceptable. The policy debate should be focused on uniting around measures to prevent both from happening. Planned Parenthood’s value in this should be recognized and respected.
Instead, the ill-informed drumbeat to defund the organization continues, as Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate showed. There are also reckless calls elsewhere to shut down the federal government this fall if the budget process doesn’t include defunding Planned Parenthood.
Little-understood is that abortion comprises a small fraction of the services Planned Parenthood provides (around 3 percent). The remainder is generally routine women’s reproductive health. That includes mammograms and other gynecologic cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and the exams and prescriptions needed to safely use birth control. Those, such as Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who claim that other community health centers could fill this gap offer no data to back up these often-overbooked clinics’ ability to do so.
The other critical point often overlooked in this new controversy is that the dubiously edited videos are not proof of illegal activity by Planned Parenthood. Much of the outrage centers on whether the organization is profiting from gathering fetal tissue for research. But collecting this tissue is legal. So is recovering reasonable costs of procuring, storing or transporting this tissue, just as nonprofits involved in organ donation do. Nothing in the videos proves that Planned Parenthood did anything more than this. Two state investigations have also concluded no laws were broken.
The videos do put a timely spotlight on the nation’s discomfort with fetal tissue research, which is utilized in the search for cures to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. As Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards notes in a July 29 letter to the National Institutes of Health, it’s been 27 years since a federal panel examined medical and ethical standards related to this. The outcry over the videos suggests that it’s time for a new panel to weigh advancements and reassure the public that this tissue is used respectfully. That’s another potentially important piece of common ground that should be sought as this debate unfolds.