I have to admit that my first reaction to the Planned Parenthood videos was to cringe and try to avoid the topic.
Even for those who support abortion rights, there is a stomach-churning aspect to the surreptitiously taped conversations with Planned Parenthood officials — the coldblooded discussion, between bites of salad and sips of red wine, of “less crunchy” techniques to obtain specimens, and the precise placement of “graspers” to avoid having to “crush” a valuable body part.
If you hear this and fail to squirm, there is something wrong with you.
That response is, of course, what the antiabortion activists who posed as purchasers and prodded the officials into discussions of payment were counting on. The ensuing uproar, which is taking the congressional form of a clamor to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding, was predictable.
It is also not rational — whatever your position in the abortion debate.
If you are among those who view abortion tantamount to murder, I respect your belief. But consider: Defunding Planned Parenthood would inevitably result in more unplanned pregnancies and therefore more abortions, not fewer. In fact, if you really want to reduce the number of abortions, you should be lobbying to increase funding for Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide birth control.
An important reminder: The federal money that goes to the organization cannot be used to underwrite its abortion services except in some rare exceptions. Sure, money is fungible but this funding comes with strict rules about commingling federal dollars with money and facilities used to perform abortions.
Rather, defunding Planned Parenthood would mean taking away money that it receives from the federal government for contraception and other essential services. Among low-income women who receive publicly supported contraceptive care at clinics, more than one-third use Planned Parenthood clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
It is no answer to breezily suggest that women obtain birth control elsewhere. The capacity to serve this population does not exist and won’t magically spring up overnight.
“You’re removing contraception with this [defunding], and if you remove contraception, you get unintended pregnancies, which means more abortion,” said Joseph Potter, a University of Texas demographer who has studied the impact of Texas’s move to defund Planned Parenthood in 2013, and testified on the organization’s behalf in a court challenge.
What about the muddled majority who support abortion in some circumstances but feel uncomfortable about the practices described in the videos?
One important fact in assessing how to respond is their scarcity. These involve second-trimester abortions, which account for less than 10 percent of abortions. They are conducted at just a handful of Planned Parenthood affiliates in three states. Overall numbers aren’t available, but Planned Parenthood told me that at one affiliate with a tissue-donation program, one-tenth of 1 percent of abortions performed there in a single year resulted in tissue donation.
Another is the justification for donations: The tissue goes to researchers studying Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis and miscarriage, among other health issues. Providing fetal tissue for such research is not only permitted under federal law, but also supported — as it should be — by federal funds, $76 million last year.
Indeed, for women who choose to donate the tissue — their consent is required, and Planned Parenthood officials say half say yes — that move at least provides the potential comfort of some good resulting from a painful choice.
So is the money a problem? Federal law permits “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.” So some money can change hands — just not too much.
The suggestion that Planned Parenthood was using fetal remains as a major revenue stream is belied by both the small scope of the practice and Planned Parenthood officials’ comments, despite the best efforts of the undercover antiabortion activists to induce them to bargain over price.
“This is not a new revenue stream that affiliates are looking at,” Dr. Deborah Nucatola said at one point in the first video, a statement edited out of the shortened version. “This is a way to offer the patient the service that they want and do good for the medical community and still have access.”
Abortion is an uncomfortable topic, even for many of us who support a woman’s right to choose. The videos exploit that queasiness. They do not justify the irrational response of eliminating funding that helps millions of women stay healthy and avoid unwanted pregnancies.