planned parenthood controversy orig nws_00015003.jpg
Video puts Planned Parenthood on defense
02:35 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The video was purportedly shot in 2014 and shows two actors pretending to be interested in fetal tissue

Planned Parenthood says it makes no profit, tissue is donated by patients

Center for Medical Progress says video is proof that abortion doctors sell body parts

CNN  — 

An anti-abortion group has released an online video that it says documents how Planned Parenthood is selling fetal organs for a profit, a felony, while violating medical ethics by altering normal abortion procedures so as to preserve the organs.

Planned Parenthood has countered that it donates the tissue for scientific research and receives only reimbursement for its expenses, which is legal. The group also says it helps people donate tissue “with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards,” according to a statement from spokesman Eric Ferrero.

Later, Ferrero issued another statement saying, “These outrageous claims are flat-out untrue, but that doesn’t matter to politicians with a longstanding political agenda to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood. Women and families who make the decision to donate fetal tissue for lifesaving scientific research should be honored, not attacked and demeaned.”

The group leveling the accusation, the Irvine, California-based Center for Medical Progress, says it shot the video a year ago at a California restaurant. On it, two people purporting to be with a human biologics company speak with a Planned Parenthood doctor over what appears to be a lunch meeting. The Center for Medical Progress says the pair, who are off-camera and never seen, are paid actors.

The video, which is almost three hours long, was released Tuesday along with a heavily edited eight-minute version, which has drawn more than 1 million views on YouTube, as opposed to about 40,000 for the the full-length footage. The group has also released a transcript of the longer video.

“Planned Parenthood’s criminal conspiracy to make money off of aborted baby parts reaches to the very highest levels of their organization,” said statement from David Daleiden, who led the undercover project.

The video has drawn the ire of GOP lawmakers in Washington, with House Speaker John Boehner calling for hearings on Planned Parenthood’s abortion practices.

“When anyone diminishes an unborn child, we are all hurt, irreversibly so. When an organization monetizes an unborn child – and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video – we must all act,” he said.

On the video, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is seen talking matter-of-factly about the organization’s participation in tissue-donation programs.

Though Planned Parenthood has described the Center for Medical Progress footage as a hit piece by “a well-funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services,” Nucatola acknowledges in the video that Planned Parenthood’s national office sees the potential for controversy.

“So, we tried to do this, and at the national office we have a Litigation and Law Department that just really doesn’t want us to be the middle people for this issue right now,” she said. “And so we had a conversation, and we said, ‘What if we go out and find everyone who is doing this and present everybody with a menu?’ And at the end of the day they just decided that right now, it’s just too touchy an issue for us to be an official middleman.”

In another part of the video, the doctor tells the undercover actors that “behind closed doors,” Planned Parenthood’s affiliates are discussing how to handle the matter.

“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 is not perceived as ‘This clinic is selling tissue. This clinic is making money off of this,’ ” she said.

The edited version of the video appears to be missing important context that’s provided in the longer video. For instance, one of the actors asks Nucatola about prices for the organs.

“OK, so when you are, or the (Planned Parenthood) affiliate is determining what that monetary … so that it doesn’t raise any question of ‘This is what it’s about; this is the main,’ what price range would you …” the woman asks, her question trailing off.

Nucatola responds that the price would be between $30 and $100 per specimen, with consideration for what facility is used and “what’s involved.” It’s not clear if a specimen constitutes the entire organ or only samples of it.

Nucatola doesn’t specifically say that the price is for the purchase of the tissue, but the comment troubled bioethicist Art Caplan of New York University, who said after watching the edited version of the video it sounds like Planned Parenthood might be trying to make a profit.

But in the longer version of the video, Nucatola elaborates and appears to say the price is related to the cost of performing the procedure and shipping.

“It just has to do with space issues. Are you sending someone there who is going to be doing everything or is their staff going to be doing it? What exactly are they going to be doing? Is there shipping involved or is someone coming to pick it up?”

Selling fetal body parts – or any body parts – is against federal law, but Planned Parenthood said it makes no profit.

“In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field,” the group said.

Another part of the video also raised concerns for Caplan. Nucatola talks about doctors performing abortions in which ultrasound is used to ascertain the best location to grab the fetus with forceps.

“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver because we know that, I’m not going to crush that part,” she says.

Altering procedures in order to get tissue in the best condition would be a “big no-no,” the bioethicist said, because the patient’s health is paramount and that should be the only concern for doctors. Caplan did not comment specifically on whether the ultrasound procedure would endanger the mother, but he made it clear that any deviation from normal procedures is unacceptable.

“In abortion the primary goal is to give the safest abortion possible,” Caplan said. “Your sole concern has to be the mother and her health.”

There’s a parallel in patient care, he said. When someone is dying, doctors shouldn’t change how they treat the patient in order to harvest good tissue for donation after death.

Doctors should treat the patient as they normally would, and then use whatever is available after death. If a provider is considering how to get the tissue that’s in the best shape, “that’s a huge conflict of interest. … If you modify how someone dies, that’s unethical.”

The Center for Medical Progress also alleges that Nucatola describes a method – using ultrasound to manipulate the fetus so it comes out feet first, or breech presentation, instead of head first, or vertex presentation – that “is the hallmark of the illegal partial-birth abortion procedure.”

Partial birth abortions are illegal, according to U.S. law, which defines them as procedures “in which the person performing the abortion deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus.”

On the video, Nucatola describes the best strategy to extract calavarium, or skulls, intact, but it is not clear if she is speaking in general terms or if she is describing Planned Parenthood’s methods. And then, she says nothing about whether the fetus is still alive when it’s delivered.

“And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex, because when it’s vertex presentation, you never have enough dilation at the beginning of the case, unless you have real, huge amount of dilation to deliver an intact calvarium. So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end.”

The Center for Medical Progress responded to Planned Parenthood’s written statement about the video and accused Planned Parenthood of lying about obtaining consent from patients and not making a profit on the tissue transactions. It did not offer any further evidence of either claim.

GOP calls for Hill hearings on Planned Parenthood video

Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, said the anti-abortion group was the one that was lying.

“A well-funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services has promoted a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research,” it said.

The statement continued, “Similar false accusations have been put forth by opponents of abortion services for decades. These groups have been widely discredited and their claims fall apart on closer examination, just as they do in this case.”

CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen, John Bonifield, Sam Stringer and Debra Goldschmidt contributed to this report.