The undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials matter-of-factly discussing the sale of fetal tissue and organs may feel like a new political scandal, but the controversy and the hidden-camera reporting that sparked it are both well-worn political retreads.
“It’s an old story dressed up in new clothes,” said Katie L. Watson, an assistant professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University.
Fetal tissue research dates back to the 1920s, when it was used to help develop vaccines for rubella and polio. But it became politically charged following Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. The current controversy isn’t the first time that hidden-camera videos propelled the issue into the national spotlight.
In March 2000, the issued evoked a similar uproar after ABC’s news magazine, “20/20,” aired a hidden-camera investigation into alleged profiteering from the sale of fetal tissue and organs.
The main target was Dr. Miles Jones, a Missouri pathologist, and his company, Opening Lines, which served as a middle man, obtaining fetal tissue from abortion clinics and then providing it to medical research labs.
Like Planned Parenthood officials in the recent videos, Jones was secretly videotaped during a restaurant meeting describing how he sets his prices.
“It’s market force,” Jones told an ABC producer posing as a potential investor. “It’s what you can sell it for.”
Some viewers were shocked at hearing medical professionals casually discuss prices for fetal organs the way a mechanic might the cost of engine parts. The footage also purported to show Jones breaking federal law that forbids the sale of fetal tissue for profit. The same law, however, allows for “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”
But because the law doesn’t define “reasonable payments” or limit how much can be charged, it makes violations difficult to determine and even harder to prove.
The day after the report aired on March 8, 2000, Attorney General Janet Reno asked FBI Director Louis Freeh to investigate Jones and his company.
Where there is wrongdoing, it should be prosecuted and the people who are doing that kind of thing should be brought to justice.
Gloria Feldt, former Planned Parenthood president, commenting in 2000 on allegations of trading in body parts
The FBI probe ultimately found no evidence that Jones broke any laws.
The report also led to a congressional appearance from whistleblower Dean Alberty, a former employee of New Beginnings, who arranged the meeting between Jones and the undercover “20/20” producer.
But Alberty’s history of conflicting statements and muddied recollections, detailed in testimony before a subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, left lawmakers unsure about his allegations of wrongdoing.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., then a member of the House of Representatives, told Alberty at the hearing that he found “so many inconsistencies in your testimony . . . your credibility, as far as this member is concerned, is shot.”
Ultimately, not much resulted from the “20/20” report – in part because of the difficulty of proving illegal profits from the sale of fetal organs.
“This report on fetal tissue sales from 2000 indicates that little, if anything, has changed since then,” emailed George J. Annas, a law and bioethics professor at Boston University. “It remains legal for a company to obtain fetal tissue from aborted fetuses, for the clinic to recover its out-of-pocket costs, and for the company that gets the fetal tissue to process it and sell it for a profit.”
That helps explain why 15 years after the “20/20” report, the Washington establishment was again jolted by hidden-camera video footage of medical professionals – this time from Planned Parenthood officials discussing the dollars and cents of fetal tissue and body parts.
I'm not sure that we have a good handle on the facts around tissue procurement...I think there is a real question to be answered about what's really happening, what's being done and who's making money in the process.
Jeffrey Kahn, professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins University
This round of controversial videos was secretly shot by the Center for Medical Progress, a group of citizen journalists who oppose abortion. They posed as employees of a biotech company interested in fetal tissue. And because their target was Planned Parenthood, the longtime nemesis of the anti-abortion movement, the collective response of the nation’s conservative political establishment has been much more uniform, swift and severe than in 2000.
Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading provider of reproductive health services, say the footage doesn’t show their officials trying to profit illegally from the sale of fetal tissue. They claim the videos were heavily edited.
It’s rare for people outside of medicine to hear blunt procedure dialogue from any medical specialty, and seeing that backstage dialogue put in front of an audience and performed while eating in a restaurant is especially jarring. So of course the optics on this are terrible.
Katie Watson, assistant professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University
One that touched off the firestorm shows a Planned Parenthood official, Dr. Mary Gatter, negotiating with the fake biotech company employees. She suggests “$75 per specimen,” and a abortion activist says, “Really, that’s way too low. I want to keep you happy.”
“We’re not in it for the money,” Gatter replies. “We don’t want to be in the position of being accused of selling tissue.”
Outraged Republicans in state capitals and on Capitol Hill have called for eliminating Planned Parenthood financial support. Congressional Republicans also haven’t ruled out the threat of a government shutdown in upcoming budget negotiations if Democrats don’t agree to halt the organization’s federal dollars.
“The revelations exposed in just the first four videos – all by themselves – are more than enough to disqualify Planned Parenthood from continued taxpayer support,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Planned Parenthood says that abortions constitute just 3 percent of what it does. The bulk of its financial support comes from the federal government, but federal law forbids any of that money to be used for abortions.
One reason fetal tissue is coveted is because it can quickly divide and can grow in different environments. It’s also shown promise in developing treatments for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, leukemia and stimulating the regrowth of damaged brain, heart and spinal cord tissue.
But privately funded fetal tissue research offers no such transparency. So it’s unclear “who’s paying and what they’re getting in return for whatever they pay and what they’re doing with tissue once they get it,” said Jeffrey Kahn, a professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “We don’t really know the answer to those questions.”
One of the leading companies that provide the tissue for researchers, StemExpress of Placerville, Calif., declined an interview request. Two other companies, Novogenix Laboratories of Los Angeles and Advanced Bioscience Resources Inc. of Alameda, Calif., did not respond to a similar request.
On the sixth video, released Wednesday by the Center for Medical Progress, a former StemExpress employee, Holly O’Donnell, says the company obtained fetal parts from women and provided them for research without permission as required by law.
In a statement, StemExpress “unequivocally denies” O’Donnell’s allegations and called the center’s video “deceptively edited and falsely worded to suggest impropriety or illegality where none exists.”
StemExpress subsequently severed its relationship with Planned Parenthood over the controversy.