It looked like they were selling aborted body parts. But was it true?

It looked like they were selling aborted body parts. But was it true?

It’s the secret “sting” video that shocked the world. While casually eating lunch and knocking back red wine, a Planned Parenthood executive talks of selling aborted body parts to undercover reporters. She speaks about how the best ways to remove a foetus is to keep certain organs intact and even talks price – from US$30 to $100 a “specimen”. It is shocking and confronting to say the least.

To say the subsequently released video makes Planned Parenthood look cruel, callous and well, criminal, is an understatement. However, there is a whole other side to this story, starting with who conducted the sting – the organisation’s political enemy, the academic-sounding Center for Medical Progress. A simple search reveals it is funded by Operation Rescue, an extremist religious and anti-choice organisation.

planned parenthood video
Image: Centre for Medical Progress (YouTube)

The second thing to note is that there are two versions of this video, one edited and another unedited, and what has been left out changes everything.

The edited version implies that Planned Parenthood staff casually hawk foetal body parts for profit to the highest bidder. The unedited version reveals that they are making clear to the anti-choice activists to whom they are speaking (who, the PP exec was led to believe, are actually employees of a start-up biomedical company) that they cannot and are not selling any of the organs, tissue or cord blood to which they have access (something that subsequent investigations prompted by the video have confirmed).

Instead, they are doing what the law thankfully allows all medical institutions to do. Namely, to recover the costs associated with storing and transporting specimens in such a way that they can be used by medical researchers to cure Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure. In the past, the use of foetal tissue has led to the discovery of vaccines for polio, measles, rubella and shingles. Foetal cells, says Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “…have no doubt saved the lives of millions of people.”


You can watch the edited version below (post continues after video):

Video via “The

In the additional 150 minutes of footage that didn’t make it to the edited version, PP’s Director of Medical Services, Deborah Nucatola, replies to one of many leading questions from the anti-choice activists by emphasising the organisation doesn’t sell foetal organs or tissue. Her response makes clear this isn’t just a perception issue, but a reality that accords with PP’s values and objectives:

Undercover Anti-Choice Activist: Ok. I’m just trying to brainstorm. Because, I think offering some people, not only, just offsetting their cost in other areas, seeing the potential for that, besides the potential, for the patient, I’m still going down that road, even though I know, I understand what you’re saying. This cannot be seen as, “We’re doing this for profit.”

Dr Nucatola: No. Nothing, no affiliate should be doing anything that’s not like, reasonable and customary. This is not – nobody should be “selling” tissue. That’s just not the goal here.

On the topic of money, the extended transcript also shows that the reason PP was discussing different reimbursement costs was because it costs clinics varying amounts to handle and store research material and they wanted to ensure they could justify the costs being reimbursed.

Nucatola was also trying to clarify whether Planned Parenthood would take responsibility for delivering the materials, which would impact cost them and therefore what could fairly be claimed. Finally, Nucatola explained that the 67 affiliates of Planned Parenthood would be pleased to obtain the maximum reimbursement possible because Planned Parenthood is a not-for-profit and would use the funds to support additional services for women.

“Planned Parenthood is a not-for-profit and would use the funds to support additional services for women.”

Dr Nucatola: …I could throw a number out that’s anywhere from $30 to $100 depending on the facility, and what’s involved. It just has to do with space issues, are you sending someone there that’s going to be doing everything, or is their staff going to be doing it?… I think for affiliates, at the end of the day, they’re a non-profit, they… want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they’re happy to do that… Every penny they save is just pennies they give to another patient. To provide a service the patient wouldn’t get otherwise.

Nothing illegal or immoral to see here. Feeling a bit had? Imagine how the Planned Parenthood doctors felt! Entrapment used to be the province of undercover cops and journalists, who had to justify deception on public interest grounds and observe a range of other legal and/or ethical limits on their activities. No such limits were in place in the Planned Parenthood sting, which saw medical staff deceived and misled not by those serving the public interest, but those serving their own extremist views by perpetrating lies.

WATCH: A clip from the unedited version (You can see it in full here):

The lies weren’t just damaging to the reputations of the filmed medical staff. In a well-orchestrated campaign, anti-choice politicians – some of whom knew about the video weeks before it was released – have used the controversy to strip funding from an organisation which partners with Planned Parenthood to increase early detection of breast cancer. Congress has also launched an investigation of America’s biggest provider of sexual and reproductive health services that may deliver the long-held Republican dream of de-funding women’s reproductive healthcare entirely.


The Planned Parenthood beat-up follows a template that has become all too common in advanced democracies: the use of information and communications technology to undermine rather than defend the public good. The media of yesteryear wasn’t perfect – far from it. But it did provide a filter through which deceptive and misleading stories had to pass.

The gate-keeping media of old may never even have released the “sting” footage once they realised that the full version undermined the assertions that any wrong had been done. If it had been released, it is likely they would have included an explanation that foetal tissue donations, like all donations to science, only happen where women give fully informed consent and in accordance with all relevant laws and ethical guidelines. The same is true in Australia.

planned parenthood video
Image: Center for Medical Progress (YouTube).

But the Internet is here to stay, bringing us truckloads of verbiage every day. The sheer volume is enough to bamboozle but much of it is more insidious than that. It actively seeks to manipulate our emotions and behaviour by playing fast and loose with the truth about who has crafted a story and for what end.

This means the only way to know who is who and what is true is to check sources and facts ourselves. If we can’t do this, we have no choice but to withhold judgment and remain skeptical.

Did the videos make you feel any differently about the ethics of abortion?

For more posts like this one:

To dos and don’ts of being pro-choice.

YES you can be pro-family, pro-child and pro-choice.

Abortion is hard enough. We need to stop harassment outside abortion clinics.

A very different kind of abortion story.

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