Planned Parenthood and Fetal Livers

Planned Parenthood finds itself unexpectedly facing a possible federal investigation and multiple state investigations after a sting video was released in which Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the organization’s senior director of medical services, discusses prices for fetal livers and other body parts over a ghastly lunch with actors posing as buyers from a fetal-tissue firm.

Federal law forbids trafficking in fetal tissue, as do a number of state statutes. Planned Parenthood protests, rather too cutely, that it is not engaged in commerce, but is simply being compensated for its expenses when arranging the donation of the remains of fetuses put to death by abortion. The federal standard governing the question is “valuable consideration” — institutions may be reimbursed for actual expenses related to the extraction, storage, and transportation of organs harvested from unborn children, but may not receive remuneration beyond that.

The law is vague by design; it was written by abortion-rights supporter Henry Waxman and was opposed by anti-abortion groups. The criminal investigation certainly is worth pursuing, but we should temper our expectations about what can be accomplished in criminal proceedings. The occasional eccentricities of Chief Justice John Roberts notwithstanding, the law says what it says, not what we wish it to say.

That being said, the video makes it clear that the familiar economic incentives are at work here. In discussing the per-specimen prices that Planned Parenthood expects to collect for livers, hearts, lungs, and intact “lower extremities,” Nucatola does not speak about institutional expenses — she speaks about supply and demand. “A lot of people want liver,” she says, before advising the buyer that it is important that Planned Parenthood avoid the impression that it is engaged in commercial trafficking: “In the Planned Parenthood world, they’re very, very sensitive to that.”

So they are.

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While the prospect of Planned Parenthood executives meditating upon the error of their ways in a federal penitentiary is attractive, there are other opportunities for reform here, too — changes that would in the long run probably prove more consequential. If what Planned Parenthood is engaged in does not violate federal and state laws, then those laws should be tightened. Congressional and state leaders should redouble their efforts to cut Planned Parenthood off from the great gush of taxpayer money that is the basis for its vampiric existence.

At the root of the abortion debate is the question of how many bodies are involved. The individual-autonomy argument — that what a woman does with her own body ought to be her own choice — assumes that there is only one body involved. Nucatola, engaged in a moment of unintentional honesty, is very frank about the commodities in which she is trading: livers, hearts, etc., though she squeamishly insists on the Latin “calvarium” for part of the discussion, which relieves her of having to say “head,” the head being a challenge to extract intact. Typically, where there is one body, there is one liver, one heart, and one head. Where there is money on the table, Planned Parenthood is comfortable with the fact that there are two bodies in the equation rather than one, financial calculation trumping medical calculation for the senior director of medical services.

#related#Much of this horror could be avoided by passing the 20-week abortion ban that House Republicans passed earlier this year. That is by no means a perfect or complete solution, but it is an achievable reform: The number of Americans who identify themselves as “pro-life” and “pro-choice” is subject to fluctuation, but a consistent majority of those describing themselves as pro-choice supports banning second-trimester abortions, while nearly 80 percent of those identifying as pro-choice support banning third-trimester abortions, and two-thirds of them support bans on partial-birth abortion. Democrats can be relied upon to overplay the abortion issue — ask Wendy Davis how that works out in the real world.

In the current instance, the merits of the case, the politics, the polls, and the headlines are for once all aligned: All Senate Republicans have to do is to muster the courage to join with the House and the majority of the American electorate against the editorial board of the New York Times. That shouldn’t be a difficult decision. There is still the possibility of an Obama veto, but a vote on the 20-week abortion ban is expected to be scheduled for soon after the August recess. 



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