Last week, an anti-abortion organization, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a heavily edited nine minute video of a three hour lunchtime meeting with Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola claiming to have “proof” that the organization was harvesting fetal organs and selling them for profit. However, the entire premise for the video is false: Planned Parenthood did nothing illegal. Journalists and news outlets have said the video is deceptive and lacks integrity and that everything said in the video stands up to the law.
The voluntary donation of fetal tissue is a standard practice in medicine, both for women giving birth and those who choose. Researchers rely on stem cell tissue from fetuses, umbilical cords, and placentas for research of cancer and genetic disorders. Prior to a medical procedure, patients give consent to donate their tissue and medical centers participating in donation programs are reimbursed for the cost of transporting the tissue, not the tissue itself.
Yes, the casual way in which Dr. Nucatola speaks about making minor changes to an abortion procedure to preserve fetal hearts and livers over lunch and a glass of red wine is a jarring image for some to watch. But that doesn’t make it “proof” that Planned Parenthood was guilty of anything other than falling for a highly organized smear campaign by an organization seeking to put them out of business. On Thursday, Planned Parenthood’s President Cecile Richards released a video apologizing for Dr. Nucoatola’s tone, and maintained that Planned Parenthood’s practice is within the strict guidelines of state and federal laws and all high quality healthcare guidelines for tissue donation.
It’s important to acknowledge the troubling and complex history in which women have been used as test subjects without their consent. In fact, it’s because of Black women like Henrietta Lacks that we have strict guidelines and informed consent. In 1951, Lacks, like many poor women of her time depended on the free healthcare of Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment of her cervical cancer. Just before Lacks died, her doctor took cells from her cervix without her knowledge for his research. The cells, known as HeLa, proved to be rare and were shared with many scientists around the world. The basis of Lacks’ cells were used to create medicines and vaccines that have been injected in hundreds of millions of people around the world, yet she and her family were never informed or compensated for her contributions.
Thankfully, advocates fought hard to ensure what happened to Lacks, and many other people of color, no longer happens in research. There are rigorous informed consent laws around research, blood donation, and tissue donation to safeguard patients from participating in research without their consent. Because of these laws, we can rest assured that high quality health centers have discussed these issues with their patients and we should respect the decisions of patients when they do opt to participate in tissue donation programs – including after their abortion.
While the direct target of CMP’s sting operation was Planned Parenthood, we have to remember the group’s overall goal: to make abortion illegal and undermine the autonomy of people seeking safe abortion care. For CMP to say that Planned Parenthood is “selling” fetal tissue erases the very real decisions of patients participating in these programs. CMP is taking away the agency of patients who freely chose to have an abortion and donate their fetal tissue to science in hopes that it will help science. Unfortunately, erasing the voices of people choosing abortion, in particular Black women, isn’t new in this country. Society readily accepts the myth pushed by anti-choice organizations that abortion is a dangerous procedure when research time and time again shows it’s one of the safest medical procedures around. Anti-choice activists perpetuate the myth that depression and breast cancer are caused by abortion, and that people who have abortions all regret their decision later, which again has been proven false and undermines their autonomy.
In fact, a study released last week out of the University of California at San Francisco found that 99 percent of women who had an abortion did not regret it. It’s true that people have a variety of feelings around their abortion, ranging from joy and relief, to anguish and worry, but that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t regret their decision.
Unfortunately, this myth of ‘post-abortion depression syndrome’ and regret are being pushed to decrease access to safe abortion care across the country. States are continuing to pass legislation requiring patients to undergo state-mandated counseling sessions with inaccurate information and 3 day waiting periods before having an abortion which makes it harder for them to take time out of work to go back to an abortion clinic multiple times. These laws are based in abortion stigma and the patriarchal belief that women do not know how to make decisions about their bodies for themselves.
When we are presented with “proof” of supposed wrongdoing, we must take a moment to consider the source and think about the actual goal of the campaign; and the goal of this campaign is to take away an important source of healthcare for many families and to silence people choosing abortion and donating their tissue. No matter how anyone personally feels about abortion, we cannot allow a targeted deceitful attack decrease access to extremely safe and legal abortion care. Black women need access to safe abortion care. To dismiss the bodily autonomy we fight hard for is a disgrace, and that’s the real injustice in this scandal.
Renee Bracey Sherman is the Policy Representative for the National Network of Abortion Funds and a member of Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women around critical social justice issues. Her work has appeared on the BBC, TIME, Salon, The Guardian, and Fusion. Bracey Sherman earned her Master's degree in Public Administration from Cornell University and sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RBraceySherman.