The Planned Parenthood “controversy” that had congressional Republicans almost shutting the federal government again is not, despite media framing, a fight over abortion. If you allow the facts to interfere with a lively drama, it becomes clear that this is a Republican battle against fetal tissue research—plain and simple.
Planned Parenthood does not use federal funds to pay for performing abortions. This is the law. Planned Parenthood’s compliance is verifiable by financial audits. Despite Republican claims on the floor of the US Senate that 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is provide abortions, that number is actually closer to three percent. Slightly more than a third of their patients come in for treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Another 35 percent or so come for contraceptive services. Sixteen percent receive cancer screening and preventative care, and another 10 percent are there for routine gynecological treatment.
The majority of these women live near or below the poverty line. The overwhelming majority of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding comes in the form of state and federal Medicaid fee-for-service reimbursement, paying for services rendered to impoverished Medicaid recipients. This same funding pool, rather than being an earmark for Planned Parenthood, pays for all medical services for Medicaid patients visiting a participating provider. Seventeen states provide state money to pay for abortion services rendered to Medicaid recipients by any abortion provider. Thirty-seven states prohibit poor women from receiving abortions under Medicaid. None of the laws governing how Medicaid funds can be spent are specific to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of sexual healthcare to women in the country. As such they are highly visible. Despite the fact that abortion services make up a miniscule fraction of their traffic, their 50-state footprint and their ability through size to resist anti-abortion terror make them a target of the anti-abortion movement.
The current controversy surrounds Republican claims that Planned Parenthood sells and profits from fetal tissue from abortions—this based on a highly edited undercover sting video. When the video is viewed in its entirety, however, it discredits the doctored version, instead showing Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, explaining that the organization does not sell tissue for profit.
What Nucatola does say is that abortion providers want to accommodate “patients who want to donate their tissue” for medical research. Fetal tissue for research comes from miscarriages and some abortions and is classified as medical waste. Research facilities usually reimburse providers for costs involved in handling and preserving the tissue. Nucatola answers questions about these costs, explaining that individual clinics set these fees. The door opened for anti-abortion propagandists when Nucatola casually guesstimated that these costs might be $30-$100.
The tissue is primarily used in the testing and development of vaccines for diseases ranging from the flu to hepatitis. Researchers also use the material for research into diseases ranging from Down syndrome to Alzheimer’s. The use of vaccines derived from such research is widespread, with almost no noticeable protest movement targeting popular products, such as flu vaccines. Likewise, the public generally supports research into treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, including research using fetal tissue. This is not surprising, considering that a plurality of the population also supports abortion rights.
Things heated up further for Planned Parenthood, however, during last month’s Republican presidential debate, with candidates once again breathing life into the discredited allegations. Republican presidential contender Carly Fiorina upped the ante, citing a related video from the same organization that produced the discredited Nucatola video. This video, she claimed, showed an aborted fetus with its “heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
Though it sounds like a cut from a zombie or cannibal horror film, the video in question does not actually show such a scene, instead featuring images of what appears to be the remains of a miscarriage. Also, according to Time magazine, the videographer does not claim that the images in his video “had anything to do with Planned Parenthood.”
Despite what should be embarrassment not just for the punked Fiorina but for everyone at the GOP debate who let her slide, the Planned Parenthood body-part-snatching and -selling story is still trending among Republicans, who seem to be in a perpetual search for a reason du jour to shut the government and humiliate the nation.