A scorching-hot scandal emerged this week, a grisly revelation you might have heard people talking about. A newly-released undercover video purports to show Planned Parenthood senior director Dr. Deborah Nucatola discussing the sale of organs from aborted fetuses. It lit up the Internet, and now several GOP presidential candidates are weighing in, pushing this out of the realm of conservative undercover video activism and into a national spotlight. But don't be too quick to buy in: The Planned Parenthood organ-selling scandal is a hollow lie. Seriously.
Here's the situation: An anti-abortion group known as The Center For Medical Progress — an odd name for a group demagoguing the concept of volunteer tissue donation, to be sure — released the video yesterday. It's an eight-minute clip that appears to show Nucatola discussing prices for various types of fetal tissue. She floats a pair of price figures at one point, from $30 to $100, and that's the moment that's getting the most play as an incriminating piece of evidence. The senior director of Planned Parenthood is selling fetal remains for up to $100 per specimen? Case closed! Or so the thinking goes.
But the video clip the group released was plainly quite heavily edited. That's not an indictment in and of itself — plenty of organizations edit for clarity and emphasis, because few viewers are likely to sift through more than two hours of footage. But in recent years, some conservative activists have unleashed a host of undercover stings like this that have turned out to be wildly deceptive, so it was probably worth not jumping the gun.
On Wednesday, the CMP released the full video (at least by their claim, and it does clock in at nearly three hours), and it revealed exactly what you'd expect about those subtle edits: They obscured Nucatola's point almost completely. She wasn't talking about the price of fetal remains, but rather the costs associated with their transport.
The relevant moment in the longer, unedited footage comes at about five minutes in, after Nucatola and her questioners settle in at the restaurant, and lightly discuss what type of wine to order. In the edited clip, the first time you hear Nucatola discussing prices "per specimen," it's shocking, no doubt. But it leaves out the essential context that preceded it, and you can see why — without the so-called smoking gun, this video probably never would have graduated from the ether of the anti-abortion movement to a mainstream news story. Here's what Nucatola said right before discussing that $30-to-$100 cost (it begins at about 4:50 into the unedited video, and the CMP has released the transcript):
Yeah, you know, I don’t think it’s a reservations issue so much as a perception issue, because I think every provider has had patients who want to donate their tissue, and they absolutely want to accommodate them. They just want to do it in a way that is not perceived as, ‘This clinic is selling tissue, this clinic is making money off of this.’ I know in the Planned Parenthood world they’re very very sensitive to that. And before an affiliate is gonna do that, they need to, obviously, they’re not—some might do it for free—but they want to come to a number that doesn’t look like they’re making money. They want to come to a number that looks like it is a reasonable number for the effort that is allotted on their part. I think with private providers, private clinics, they’ll have much less of a problem with that.
That section is bolded in the CMP transcript, as though it's a hugely crucial piece of what they're uncovering. But in reality, it does precisely the opposite — it makes it more or less clear that Nucatola's $30-to-$100 estimate wasn't about fetal tissue, but the associated costs that Planned Parenthood incurs when a patient wants to donate tissue. You can understand why there's a real desire not to be seen as "selling tissue" — that's a violation of federal law. But sadly for the CMP, their video fails to demonstrate any such thing.
What it does do very capably, however, is make Nucatola seem disturbingly casual about topics that sound extremely grisly to an outside observer. And frankly, that might be more the point. It's apparent when you watch the video that they stitched together from the raw footage. Beyond the deceptive price-per-specimen stuff, it delves into Nucatola's graphic descriptions of the procedure. Stuff like this:
... I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above and see if I can get the whole thing intact.
Look, if that kind of blunt description disturbs you, I can't blame you. It's not my idea of appropriate lunch conversation either, but I'm not working in reproductive health. Here's the reality: Professionals across all fields become somewhat inured to the everyday realities of their careers over time. And when you get a few of them together — Nucatola was tricked into believing she was speaking to representatives of a biological research company, remember — you're likely to hear some pretty straightforward stuff.
We all understand this in certain contexts, like when a police officer becomes less emotive and more blunt about their job over time, for example. But when the profession in question is highly politicized and fraught — abortion providers are certainly heroes to many people, but are also hated, sometimes to a murderous extent, by countless others — this kind of thing becomes very easy to demagogue. Throw in that "liberals sipping red wine" vibe, and you've got a winner.
For my money, that's the real conceit of the video: to hook you with the overblown, unfulfilled promise of a Planned Parenthood higher-up arranging an organ harvesting deal on camera, and reel you in by making you uncomfortable with Nucatola's vivid familiarity with the process. I can't deny that it's an effective trick — set the narrative with some unscrupulous video work, and hope the damage is done before anyone knows any better. It's basically the same way conservative activist James O'Keefe brought down ACORN back in 2009. His undercover video was later shown to be grossly misrepresentative, but that was after Congress defunded the organization.
Now there'll surely be a similar push against Planned Parenthood. Considering that congressional Republicans have been champing at the bit to defund the organization for years, even before this story came out, it's as safe a bet as they come.
But don't be fooled by the bait-and-switch. The alleged center of this story is a Planned Parenthood director encouraging the illegal sale of fetal tissue. And that center — on the basis of this evidence, at least — does not hold.
Images: The Center For Medical Progress/YouTube (4)