Millions of Americans have donated their organs for transplantation; or, alternatively, they have offered their entire bodies for medical research. For the latter many universities and private companies contract to pay for funeral expenses, and hospitals generally charge $100-500 to prepare surgical tissue for medical research. The $30-100 Planned Parenthood bills to process fetal tissue, released only with permission by the woman involved, is modest in comparison.
Critics would argue that the fetus is a separate person and therefore must somehow give consent. Our moral, religious, and legal traditions, however, have not recognized the fetus as a person until late in pregnancy. In 1973 the Supreme Court followed these precedents by ruling that the fetus is not a viable, independent being until end of the second trimester. Only then does the state have a legal right to act on behalf of the fetus and protect its life.
In 1993 Congress lifted the ban, put in place by the Reagan Administration, on using fetal tissue for medical research. The legislation explicitly allows “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.” In the uncut video taken by anti-abortion activists, Dr. Deborah Nucatola of Planned Parenthood insists we “are not looking to make money by doing this,” and she turned down offers of $1,600 by fraudulent buyers for two fetal organs.
Planned Parenthood has apologized for what Rep. John Boehner has called Dr. Nucatola’s “cavalier” tone about discussing fetal organs, but gallows humor is commonplace in the medical profession, especially in high stress situations. When Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Mary Gatter’s said that she was going to buy a Lamborghini with these modest proceeds, some people somehow do not get the obvious irony in this ludicrous comment.
Fetal tissue has been essential in investigating the causes and cures of diseases such as Parkinson’s and cystic fibrosis. It has been particularly valuable in producing vaccines against measles, rubella, chicken pox, and shingles. A polio vaccine was created from fetal kidney cells, and the researchers were awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center in Philadelphia, declares that “cells from one fetus have no doubt saved the lives of millions of people.”
The anti-abortion activists introduced themselves to Nucatola and Gatter as representatives of the Center for Medical Progress, which has direct connections to the militant anti-choice group Action Live. In applying for its tax exempt status it deceived the IRS by claiming that it was a biomedical research organization. Since its founding in 2013, it has not filed the necessary 990 forms for non-profit organizations. Furthermore, Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General, has launched an investigation into “allegations about individuals impersonating corporate officials from a fake biologics company.” She wants to know if any state laws have been violated.
Live Action is associated with Operation Rescue, which has held protests at abortion clinics all over the nation. Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue’s senior advisor, served a two-year prison term for attempting to bomb a clinic in 1987. Operation Rescue led a multi-year campaign against abortion doctor George Tiller, who was assassinated by Scott Roeder at church in 2009. Roeder was active in Operation Rescue, and he claims that Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue and secretary for the so-called Center for Medical Progress, encouraged him to use violence to protect the lives of the unborn.
Anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue maintain that they model their actions on the civil rights movement, and that they are standing up for fetal rights. There are strict principles for civil disobedience, and one of them is that one openly and nonviolently defies what one perceives to be unjust laws. Mahatma Gandhi also immediately pled guilty in court and demanded that the judges send him to prison. Bombing abortion clinics, shooting doctors, setting up fake companies, and doing undercover videography are of course far from the ideals of civil disobedience.
The bill that made fetal tissue research legal passed the Senate on a voice vote, and 59 Republicans voted in the affirmative on the final vote in the House on May 23, 1993. Three Republicans—Mitch McConnell, Lamar Alexander, and Fred Upton—who voted for this bill are now calling for an investigation of Planned Parenthood and possible defunding of their programs. McConnell says that it appears that Planned Parenthood has violated the law, but I’m confident that America’s most effective family planning organization can prove him and others wrong.