The sting was wonderfully executed. It would have done 60 Minutes proud. Anti-abortion activists posing as representatives of a biotech company lured a top Planned Parenthood executive to a business meeting at a Los Angeles restaurant. The subject: a deal to procure fetal tissue for medical research.
The meeting went spectacularly well – for the anti-abortion lobby. Between bites of salad and sips of red wine Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, is captured on videotape casually discussing the products, the price, and the best techniques to extract desirable body parts. "I'd say a lot of people want liver," she says cheerily. "We've been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I'm not gonna crush that part, I'm gonna basically crush below, I'm gonna crush above, and I'm gonna see if I can get it all intact."
Planned Parenthood has been under siege before. But this time is different. This time, even its usual supporters are laying low. A few days after the first video came a second one, in which another executive is shown bargaining over the price of fetal organs. "Well, you know in negotiations the person who throws out the figure first is at loss, right?" she says playfully. Later, she says that if the price on offer is too low, "then we can bump it up. I want a Lamborghini."
The videos have been playing on an endless feedback loop on Fox News. The group behind the sting says there are many more incriminating videos to come. "I want to be really clear," Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, said this weekend. "The allegation that Planned Parenthood profits in any way from tissue donation is not true."
She's obviously right. Planned Parenthood is not trafficking illegally in body parts. The small fees involved in these transactions are clearly meant to offset costs. Human tissue is important for medical research, and fetal tissue is obtained with consent. "So there's basically nothing here," one progressive commentator concluded. This sting is "yet another right wing nothingburger."
But he's wrong. It is devastating. Even people who are pro-choice (as I am) would be disturbed by the callous tone of the videos. Yes, of course they were edited for effect. Still, the entire tapes have been released, and those officials said what they said. They talked about second-trimester fetal humans as if they were fetal pigs. They talked about asking doctors to alter their abortion procedures in order to obtain better specimens for research. As the second executive puts it, she'll see "... how he feels about using a less crunchy technique."
Most Americans, and most Canadians, too, have mixed feelings about abortion. They strongly support access to abortion, up to a point. That point is some time in the second or the beginning of the third trimester, when, in most people's view, the "products of conception" – the sanitized term for aborted fetal tissue – start turning into "baby body parts."
Yet progressive defenders of abortion rights have been just as absolutist as their opponents. Their position is that abortion under any circumstances is morally benign, and that a woman's right to choose is absolute. Along with their opponents, they have reduced the abortion wars to a ridiculous binary: You're either on our side or the side of darkness.
But most of us aren't on either of those sides. We recognize that under certain circumstances, abortion poses genuine ethical issues. You can't just wish them away.
At the very least, the officials captured on videotape were dangerously imprudent. Planned Parenthood – the largest women's health network in the U.S. – has been a juicy target for years. Its enemies want to destroy it. Its senior staff ought to know better than to casually discuss fetal livers over lunch with strangers. They ought to have known that anything they say or do can, and will, be used against them.
The fallout has been swift, and perfectly predictable. Congressional Republicans are on the warpath to shut down Planned Parenthood's federal funding, and various state governments have launched their own investigations to determine whether laws were broken. Planned Parenthood delivers valuable services to millions of women, and the procedures spotlighted in this sting are just a tiny fraction of what they do. Now they've put themselves at risk – and left even their supporters at a loss for how to defend them.