Earlier this year, a slew of undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue made for a PR nightmare for the largest abortion provider in the United States. Conducted by a group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the undercover investigation suggested that Planned Parenthood had illegally profited from the sale of fetal body parts, and that abortion providers may even be modifying abortion procedures in order to obtain desirable tissue.
The videos added fuel to the raging debate in the U.S. over abortion. They made people ask whether Planned Parenthood, which bills itself as a non-profit providing millions of women access to affordable health care, deserves the half a billion dollars it receives from the federal government each year, in addition to state funding.
Staunch Planned Parenthood supporters decried the undercover investigation, arguing that the videos were selectively edited (one investigation alleged they were, while two others showed they weren’t); that fetal tissue is essential to medical advances (it’s rarely used); and that Planned Parenthood is a critical health care provider for women (more on this later).
It wasn’t the first time that undercover videos have suggested wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood, including covering up child sex trafficking and accepting donations earmarked to abort racial minorities. Previously, Planned Parenthood brushed off such scandals, firing implicated employees but otherwise continuing business as usual. Mainstream media ignored the stories, few people outside the pro-life movement reacted, and calls for investigations fizzled.
But something was different this time: CMP’s videos struck a nerve. While denying any wrongdoing, Planned Parenthood hired a fancy PR firm to do damage control, even pretending at one point that its website had been hacked in order to garner donations. Early in the scandal, president Cecile Richards apologized for one of her employees’ callousness of tone as she discussed fetal dismemberment while munching on a salad and sipping wine – although since then, Richards has gone on the offensive, calling for supporters to rally around the organization.
Planned Parenthood had good reason to be worried. Pro-lifers were galvanized: people came out of the woodwork to participate in nationwide protests and to become more active in the pro-life movement, and six states discontinued funding for Planned Parenthood. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure defunding the organization, though it was later defeated in the Senate. Even members of the European Union Parliament demanded investigations and defunding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
More interesting, however, was that despite media bias, even some who identify as pro-choice became uneasy and reconsidered their stance on abortion, as one writer describes: “For those of us who are pro-choice, the Planned Parenthood videos are a game changer.” Others worry that Planned Parenthood’s alleged modification of abortion procedures to obtain intact fetal parts puts women at risk.
Planned Parenthood and its supporters have tried to deflect the controversy over abortion by arguing that defunding the organization would leave millions of women without access to affordable health care, including well-woman exams, mammograms, and STD testing, as well as contraception. For instance, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) asserted that Planned Parenthood is the sole source of health care for one-third of U.S. women – 36 to 39 million individuals. But this is patently false; only 2.7 million women and men visit the organization every year. Planned Parenthood had also claimed to provide mammograms and that abortions comprised only a small percentage of their services. When Cecile Richards was called to testify under oath before Congress, however, she admitted that Planned Parenthood does not provide mammograms but only referrals, and that abortions account for 86% of revenue.
As pro-life advocates and community health experts have pointed out, for every Planned Parenthood facility there are a dozen community health centers that provide all the same services, including contraception, but do not perform abortions. These federally funded health centers serve as a one-stop shop for 23 million women, (and men, and children) for comprehensive health care, not just reproductive issues. There’s even a new interactive map of all the places that women can find affordable health care, and it includes providers one wouldn’t initially think of, such as schools and homeless shelters. Planned Parenthood has framed the discussion in such a way that support for defunding the organization pits one against women’s health, yet clearly, it’s possible to provide women with quality health care without America’s largest abortion provider. Accordingly, the House’s bill defunding Planned Parenthood contained a provision redirecting funding to community health centers.
Planned Parenthood ended up announcing that it will no longer accept any kind of reimbursement for fetal tissue. One might be cynical and say that this allows the organization to continue to perform abortions while putting to rest the question of whether it made money from selling fetal parts. But the reaction from people who were upset by the sale of fetal body parts, including many of those who were pro-choice, underscores the recognition, implicit or explicit, of the humanity of the fetus. After all, despite Planned Parenthood’s attempts to dehumanize the unborn person, the use of fetal parts for human research affirms the fact that the fetus is not a nebulous blob of tissue, but a member of the human species.
Planned Parenthood has big money, passionate supporters, and political clout, often making it impervious to oversight. But the organization’s response to the scandal – the apology for tone and its ceasing of taking any kind of reimbursement for fetal tissue – indicates wariness on its part that the general public is growing increasingly skeptical that Planned Parenthood deserves their trust.
Audra Nakas was a visiting student at Christ Church in Hilary 2013. She is a fellow with Ethika Politika.