Is Planned Parenthood’s Fetal-Parts Trade Legal?

UPDATE: House Speaker John Boehner calls for an investigation, after a sting operation on a Planned Parenthood medical director captured a jarring conversation over procuring fetal organs from abortions.

Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of Medical Services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, discusses harvesting of fetal organs and tissues in an undercover video posted July 14 on YouTube.
Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of Medical Services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, discusses harvesting of fetal organs and tissues in an undercover video posted July 14 on YouTube. (photo: YouTube/Center for Medical Progress)

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 16.

LOS ANGELES — An undercover video released July 14 apparently shows Planned Parenthood’s medical director casually discussing over wine and salad how their affiliates harvest fetal body parts for medical research.

“I’d say a lot of people want liver,” said Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), at a lunch with two undercover investigators posing as representatives of a fetal-tissue collection agency, according to the transcript from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP).

Between sips of wine and gesticulating with her salad fork, Nucatola (who also performs abortions for Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles) describes in detail the techniques, the protocols and the cost involved in procuring the livers, hearts, lungs and brains of aborted unborn babies for scientists.

“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver,” she said, having noted that doing so depends on the abortionist placing the graspers above and below the unborn child’s body cavity, “because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part; I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”

At one point, Nucatola appears to describe a procedure that CMP alleged is the partial-birth abortion procedure — dilation and extraction — where a baby is delivered feet first, except for the head, which is crushed. But from the transcript, it is unclear whether or not Nucatola was describing dismemberment taking place in the womb — dilation and evacuation — leaving the intact head for last, when dilation of a woman’s cervix would be the greatest.


Congress Investigates

House Republicans have responded to the video by launching an investigation into Planned Parenthood and the fetal-parts trade.

“When an organization monetizes an unborn child — and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video — we must all act,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement calling on House committees to act and for President Barack Obama to condemn the practice.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who co-chairs the House bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus with Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., said at a press conference following the video’s release that “Congress must — and will — investigate and put an end to these barbaric practices.”

“Current law that proscribes altering abortion procedures in order to procure baby organs and body parts as well as the law that says it is ‘unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration’ need to be enforced and, if need be, strengthened,” he said. “The ban on partial-birth abortion and the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act may have relevance here. As does the House-passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” 


Legal Questions

While the video is shocking, and what Nucatola describes morally abhorrent, much of it may actually be legal.  

The Center for Medical Progress, the organization behind the video, alleged it shows proof of a “criminal conspiracy” to buy and sell fetal parts for profit. The Register reached out to David  Daleiden, the project lead in the outfit’s three-year undercover investigation of Planned Parenthood, but received no response to phone and email requests for an interview.

However, the facts about procuring fetal tissue do not appear so clear-cut. While selling human body parts in general is illegal, federal law does not prohibit tissue donations and allows fetal tissue donation — either from induced abortion, spontaneous miscarriage or stillbirth — with “reasonable payments” for the “transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control or storage of human fetal tissue.” State laws governing organ donation, including from aborted babies, vary from state to state.The video only shows approximately nine minutes out of a nearly three-hour conversation. The full transcript accompanying the video gives the whole picture, and, there, Nucatola stated that the goal of procuring fetal tissue at Planned Parenthood facilities “is to give patients the option without impacting our bottom line.” She said affiliates were looking to “break even” and explained that the service “should not be seen as a new revenue stream, because that’s not what it is.” “[Affiliates] 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,” she said.

Nucatola added that PPFA affiliates are interested in the tissue-donation service because of the need to dispose of fetal tissue, since they generally pay a company, such as Stericycle, to dispose of biological material. At the same time, she said, it offers patients an opportunity to contribute to scientific research.

“At the end of the day, it is all just sitting there; it’s all just going to be wasted otherwise. That’s what it is: It’s a waste. It’s a complete and total waste,” she said.

While Nucatola in the video appears to discount a profit motive, StemExpress, one of the recipients of fetal material from Planned Parenthood mentioned in the exchange, sells vials of fetal liver cells from anywhere between $488 and $24,250.

However, StemExpress marketed its program on its literature and website as “financially profitable” to participating clinics, and it carried an endorsement from Dr. Dorothy Furgerson of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte.

A representative of StemExpress informed the Register on July 14 that the company is aware of the video and will be following up with a response. However, the Register received no reply to its follow-up calls and later found the company’s website temporarily shut down for “maintenance.”


Planned Parenthood Responds

Planned Parenthood responded by stating that the undercover video was “heavily edited” and “falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue-donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research.”

“At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health-care provider does — with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards,” said Eric Ferraro, PPFA’s vice president of communications, in a statement. “There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or Planned Parenthood. In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.”

But Casey Maddox, senior counsel with the public interest firm Alliance Defending Freedom, said it appears that “Planned Parenthood is carefully skirting this law, if not violating it.”

Maddox said the law allows for donations of tissue and reasonable fees, such as payments covering transportation, adding there is a line between a “reasonable fee” and “making a profit.”

Where that line is may be difficult to pin down. A federal investigation into a company called Opening Lines, which sold fetal body parts obtained from abortion centers, closed in 2008 without any charges, due to the lack of evidence that the proprietor was turning a profit. In that case, the company had charged as much as $999 for a brain of a late-term aborted baby. In response, pro-life congressmen at the time had called for a total ban on the sale of aborted fetal tissue.

By comparison, the Planned Parenthood medical director in the CMP video suggested a price of $30-$100 per “specimen.”

But Maddox also pointed out two problems: The video shows there may be violations of the federal partial-birth abortion ban. But he said a less obvious violation is the law prohibits changing the abortion procedure in order to procure tissue for research.

He pointed to the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, which stipulates “no alteration of the timing, method or procedures used to terminate the pregnancy was made solely for the purposes of obtaining the tissue.”

“The video explicitly describes how they are changing the abortion in order to provide good tissue samples,” he said.


Calls for Action

The revelations have raised renewed support for banning late-term abortion based on fetal pain and prompted other calls for action.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a candidate in the Republican presidential primary, announced July 14 he was ordering a state investigation into the “shocking and gruesome” allegations. He noted a Planned Parenthood affiliate is seeking to open an abortion center in New Orleans.

“I have instructed Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals [DHH] to conduct an immediate investigation into this alleged evil and illegal activity and to not issue any licenses until this investigation is complete,” he said. 

Other pro-life groups called on Congress to revoke all federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, called for Congress to use its subpoena power “to determine how Planned Parenthood is using taxpayer dollars and whether they are violating the federal prohibition on [the] sale of human body parts.”

“This video provides a shocking reality check about the grisly, inhumane business model of Planned Parenthood,” she said. “Under Cecile Richards’ leadership, breast screenings are down, abortions are up, and profits are up, as even the bodies of the unborn become something else for her to sell.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.

 Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.



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