This week, pro-choice advocates celebrated the defeat of a Republican-led attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, after a series of videos that claimed to show staff selling foetal tissue prompted a vote in Congress.
It was a hollow victory, though. The GOP didn’t get the votes, but they did get the majority – even two Democrats voted to withdraw the $528.4 million that makes up 40% of the healthcare provider’s annual funding.
One of the videos appears to show Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, Deborah Nucatola, negotiating a price for organs removed from aborted foetuses.
“I would say it’s probably anywhere from $30 to $100, depending on the facility and what’s involved,” she tells an undercover activist.
Of course, selling foetal tissue is illegal. However, donating it for stem cell research – and recouping associated cost – is not, and on Monday Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey found Planned Parenthood to be “fully compliant with state and federal laws regarding the disposition of foetal tissue”.
The videos are heavily edited in a way that would make reality TV producers proud, so it’s not surprising their claims have been roundly debunked.
‘Planned Parenthood sells dead babies’ might play well in the press, but suggesting it profits from such a meagre fee seems a stretch. I’ve never looked into how much black-market organs cost – strangely enough, I’ve never had cause to – but I’d make a safe bet $30-$100 falls below market value.
The story is almost gratuitously awful. If someone had asked you two months ago to name the most horrifying thing an abortion provider could do – enough to make even pro-choice campaigners retch – surely this would be it. And that's hardly a coincidence.
The videos are backed by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group which was last week given a restraining order for targeting the National Abortion Federation. The issuing judge said that without it, the NAF would likely suffer “irreparable injury… in the form of harassment, intimidation, violence, invasion of privacy, and injury to reputation”.
The head of the CMP, David Daleiden, has said there are up to ten more videos ‘exposing’ the sale of foetal tissue.
This isn’t a whistleblowing exercise or a Panorama-style documentary exposing wrongdoing. This is a smear campaign pursued with all the obsession of a small child or a serial killer - yet it’s influential enough that Congress launched a full investigation into the claims. When one of the most powerful political bodies in the world can be swayed by a group with so little credibility, how can anyone take it seriously? Jaded politicos might interject at this point to say that no one does.
But of course, this was never really about ‘dead babies’. It’s about vilifying an organisation that provides affordable healthcare to women – contraception, cervical cancer screenings, breast exams and, yes, abortions.
Abortions, which take up just 3% of Planned Parenthood spending, none of which is federal. But presidential hopeful Rand Paul vowed to use ”all legislative vehicles at his disposal“ to force a vote, while Ted Cruz pledged to “eliminate” its state funding.
This is just one in a long line of assaults on women’s reproductive rights – from the Texas bill so famously filibustered by Wendy Davis to the attempt to limit abortions to six weeks in North Dakota. Meanwhile, thanks to the Hobby Lobby ruling, private firms can opt not to offer contraception in workers’ health plans under Obamacare on religious grounds.
This explains why so many senators seem able to overlook the screaming irony that family planning services prevent abortions, and that more restrictive abortion policy laws aren’t associated with lower abortion rates.
But when has evidence mattered? Not in the past, and as the latest vote shows, not now.
It was only ever about ideology. It’s about restricting women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies, and it’s about winning presidential primaries. And with the election circus in sight, there’s more of this to come.
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