Investigations Abortion

What the Planned Parenthood Attack Group Won’t Tell You About Its ‘Findings’

Sharona Coutts

A careful review of the Center for Medical Progress' footage and the accompanying transcript makes clear that CMP's central claims were wrong, and also that what the group left out of its edited work was just as important as what it included.

See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

Another week, another video from the anti-choice activists who have been waging a three-year undercover smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.

The latest video from the Center for Medical Progress again features Holly O’Donnell, a former employee of StemExpress, a private company that helps procure tissue donation for medical research. The new video contains little by way of new allegations against Planned Parenthood, other than details that the avowedly “very pro-life” O’Donnell says she found troubling, such as the fact that a particular provider allegedly worked quickly.

By contrast, last week’s video contained a number of big claims that are demonstrably false, according to legal, medical, and scientific experts interviewed by Rewire. The group made available the full six hours of secretly taped footage late last week. A careful review of that footage and the accompanying transcript makes clear that CMP’s central claims were wrong, and also that what the group left out of its edited work was just as important as what it included.

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Given that CMP claims it will release at least another six films, it’s worth noting some of the more glaring fallacies from last week’s release.

CMP Knew That Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast Was Not Donating Fetal Tissue

The entire premise of CMP’s campaign against Planned Parenthood is the false allegation that Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue for profit, in violation of federal law.

A close reading of last week’s 119-page transcript, however, reveals that CMP knew that Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast wasn’t even involved in donating fetal tissue.

That’s because their main contact at the facility, Melissa Farrell, the director of research at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, told the operatives that there was no fetal donation program occurring at her facility.

“I don’t know about the other Texas affiliates,” she says, about a third of the way through the transcript. “[A]t our affiliate, I mean we don’t have any ongoing fetal donation.”

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast confirmed that fact to Rewire. And in an emailed statement, a spokesperson, Rochelle Tafolla, said the center has participated in research in the past—in particular, contributing tissue for a study on miscarriage by the University of Texas Medical Branch. The study was part of an attempt to understand ways to prevent miscarriage and other problems that can require the termination of a pregnancy.

According to Tafolla:

There was no financial benefit in fetal tissue donation for either the patient or the health center. In some instances, the study-specific procedures were reimbursed at cost, which is standard across the medical field. There was no direct payment for fetal tissue.

CMP’s Claims of “Born Alive” Abortions Are Unfounded

The second major claim from CMP’s leader, David Daleiden, is that his group found evidence that Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast has violated the federal “partial-birth abortion” ban because Farrell, the director of research, and Tram Nguyen, the ambulatory surgery center director at the clinic, said that they could, on occasion, provide intact fetal corpses to medical researchers.

Daleiden made this claim in a press release from the CMP, as well as on an earlier appearance on CNN, and it was repeated by CMP’s co-founder, Troy Newman, in his own press release last week.

“Partial-birth abortion” is a political term that has been used to demonize a particular technique for removing a fetus. The 2003 federal law makes it illegal for an abortion provider to act intentionally to end the life of a fetus whose head has either emerged from the birth canal, or—if the fetus is in breech position—any part of the fetus’ body past its navel is “outside the body of the mother.”

To make his claim, Daleiden stitched together a string of accusations against Planned Parenthood, each of which turns out to be incorrect.

First, he says that medical researchers cannot use fetal tissue that has been affected by substances that are sometimes used to terminate a pregnancy. Because Planned Parenthood said they could provide some intact fetuses that could be used for research, he continues, these fetuses must not have been affected by the use of any of these substances. Hence, Daleiden concludes, they could potentially have been delivered alive, and if the doctor intended to do so, he or she must have violated the federal law.

There are multiple problems with Daleiden’s logic, according to experts who spoke about the procedure with Rewire.

The most fundamental problem is that there are many legal ways that an abortion could result in an intact fetal corpse.

For instance, some abortion providers do not use feticidal agents, but rather, cut the umbilical cord prior to delivery, which causes fetal death. If delivery is swift, the intact fetus could be available for donation to medical research. That is a simple and legal way that an abortion could result in an intact fetal cadaver, contrary to Daleiden’s claims.

Moreover, in later abortions it can be common to induce delivery, a procedure that may take a number of hours, or even days. Women frequently take medication (like misoprostol) to bring on symptoms of labor, including contractions. Some providers use devices, such as laminaria, to assist the cervix to open. This is because the procedure can require the woman to deliver the fetus vaginally, or to give her cervix enough time to soften sufficiently to allow the doctor to perform a dilation and evacuation procedure. Such procedures may be used in the case of a fetus that has died in the womb.

Like all deliveries, the combination of each woman’s body with other external factors can make it hard to predict how long it will take for her body to expel the fetus. As one provider told Rewire, “It’s a bit of an art, giving [misoprostol] and then judging whether the patient’s cervix has become dilated and softened enough by just looking at her sitting in the chair.”

In some cases, if delivery occurs rapidly, the woman may expel her fetus intact. This scenario does not violate the federal law.

Simply put, Daleiden was also wrong in this claim.

What CMP Left Unsaid

Finally, it’s worth noting some of what CMP omitted from its selectively edited clips—material that shows the reality of why some women seek abortions, including later abortion.

Of course, reproductive rights advocates point out that there should be no hierarchy of worthiness when it comes to women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to access abortion care. One abortion is not more deserving than another.

Yet these facts are relevant because polls consistently show that even people who claim to be anti-choice are likely to agree that any laws restricting abortion access should make exceptions for certain situations, including for fetuses with fatal anomalies, for victims of sex abuse, and for minors.

To the extent that the CMP’s campaign is really about turning public opinion against abortion, it’s therefore important to point out that Planned Parenthood is providing many services that even those uncomfortable with the right to abortion in general would support.

Fetal Anomalies

Toward the end of the full-length footage, a CMP operative posing as a buyer for a tissue procurement company is trying to goad Nguyen into saying that the clinic could provide tissue from later-stage fetuses.

“You know, I was going to ask you because you guys said that you could go up to twenty-four weeks for certain indications, how broad is that allowance,” the operative asks.

“It’s actually very narrow,” says Nguyen. “In order to be considered a lethal anomaly, the wording in the law is very specific so we require documentation from a maternal-fetal medicine doctor or a geneticist. It has to specifically say on the notes or on the ultrasound, you know, lethal, will not survive. The chances of viability are like zero-five percent. That’s when we do the cases over twenty-two weeks, so it’s between twenty-two and twenty-three six is the max.”

Nguyen explains that the most common cases of fetal anomaly they see include anencephaly, a condition that, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, “often results in a baby being born without the front part of the brain (forebrain) and the thinking and coordinating part of the brain (cerebrum). The remaining parts of the brain are often not covered by bone or skin.”

The causes of anencephaly are still not entirely understood, but the CDC concludes that “[a]lmost all babies born with anencephaly will die shortly after birth.”

Daleiden and his group did not mention that when presenting their highly edited footage, showing the remains of aborted fetuses.

Sex Assault Victims

Nor do they mention the fact that many of the abortions performed by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast are for victims of rape.

“We actually do quite a bit of evidence collection in terms of rape patients and stuff like that where everything has to be sterile, because it’s gonna go on to be analyzed outside of here,” says Farrell early in the transcript, where she is explaining the need for sterile lab processes to ensure that evidence is not contaminated.

Later in the transcript, Nguyen says the clinic does “a lot of cases for sexual assault cases.”

Neither Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast nor Planned Parenthood Federation of America provided Rewire with information on what proportion of their procedures involve victims of sexual assault.

Minors

Finally, the CMP press release made no mention of the fact that some of the abortions performed at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast are delayed by the very laws that are drafted and supported by anti-choice activists and politicians.

For instance, the video includes footage of the remains of an 18-week fetus. What the edited version excludes is the explanation of why this procedure took place at that time.

“She was also a minor,” says Nguyen, in the full footage. “The reason she had to wait so long, was because originally she didn’t have parental consent [for the procedure]. So she was going through a judicial bypass process. And somehow or other, after she got it, then her mom found out, and then her mom came in to consent.”

Laws requiring minors to obtain parental consent before accessing an abortion are a popular tool of the anti-choice movement because the requirements may sound reasonable on their face. Many people might instinctively agree that parents should know about their minor child’s pregnancy, and be involved in any decision about medical treatment.

However, according to Advocates for Youth, these laws serve to further penalize and endanger girls who are already at risk.

Noting that 30 percent of girls who seek abortions without telling their parents fear violence or being forced to leave home, Advocates for Youth says on its website:

Most young women do consult their parents before seeking abortion care. Nonetheless, many teens live in dysfunctional family environments, and parental involvement laws cannot transform these families into stable homes nor facilitate communications. Forcing teens to involve parents in these circumstances puts them at risk.

The laws also delay access to abortion care, leading to the later abortions that CMP is capitalizing on to try to further restrict women’s access to medical care.

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