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Planned Parenthood: A terrified business partner abandons the organization

Last week a small California company that provides human blood, cells and tissues to research scientists bailed on one of its partners, Planned Parenthood.

Placerville, Ca.-based StemExpress, which had worked with Planned Parenthood to distribute fetal cells and tissues following abortions at the organization's clinics -- with the full consent of the patients undergoing the procedure -- ended its relationship with the healthcare provider "due to the increased questions that have arisen over the past few weeks."

These aren't questions about the legality or ethics of Planned Parenthood's activities, which haven't been legitimately challenged. They're questions about whether the organization's activities can survive a full-scale political onslaught.

Anyone concerned about scientific research, especially work aimed at developing cures for serious diseases, should be appalled at this development. It's the product of pure harassment by antiabortion activists, conniving with opportunistic politicians. Patients of all kinds are the losers, as is the respectability of our political process. 

StemExpress isn't terminating its relationship with Planned Parenthood because it thinks the relationship led it to do anything wrong. The firm doesn't think Planned Parenthood has done anything wrong, either. We know this because the company says so in a lawsuit it filed last month against the Center for Medical Progress. That's the antiabortion group that has been releasing edited undercover videos of meetings it conducted, apparently under false pretenses, with Planned Parenthood officials and others.

CMP's released videos of Planned Parenthood doctors, StemExpress says, "are purposely edited to paint the doctors in a negative and factually-misleading light."

CMP is poised to release another undercover video of a meeting it held with StemExpress founder Catherine Dyer and other company executives. That release has been blocked by a judge, but it's uncertain whether the injunction will last beyond a hearing scheduled for Friday.

It's already too late for StemExpress to escape the maelstrom. The firm was mentioned in at least two of the CMP videos of the Planned Parenthood meetings. The company says that's been enough to result in threats of violence against Dyer, prompting her to hire a security team.

Congressional Republicans joined the circus. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, shot off a letter to Dyer seeking a "briefing" about StemExpress' business. "We ... note that a StemExpress brochure contains an endorsement from a chapter of Planned Parenthood," Upton's letter observes, ominously. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) hopped on the bandwagon by demanding materials from StemExpress and two other providers of fetal tissues, Advanced Bioscience Resources and Novogenix Laboratories.

This is a new advance in "guilt by association": it's guilt by association with the non-guilty. Absolutely no evidence has been presented that Planned Parenthood has broken the law regarding the acquisition or distribution of fetal tissues.

StemExpress, a five-year-old company with about 30 employees and less than $3 million in revenue (judging from 2013 figures published by Inc. Magazine last year), plainly has concluded that working with Planned Parenthood isn't worth the candle.

One might think of StemExpress' action as cowardly. But it's more fair to regard it as realistic. In any controversy involving private enterprise, corporate self-interest is the soft underbelly for attack, because economic interest almost always trumps moral steadfastness; the smaller the company the less its defenses against bad publicity, no matter how ill-informed. 

StemExpress says it operates according to the highest ethical and professional standards, including the requirement that "an informed consent be discussed and signed by each donor for any donation of tissue of all types, including human fetal tissue or blood." That tissue is distributed to researchers who use it for "finding cures and treatments for cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cardiac disease, and other significant medical conditions."

Fetal cells and tissues, which were the focus of its relationship with Planned Parenthood, accounted for 10% of StemExpress' total business, which is devoted mostly to distributing adult biological materials; because it worked with only two Planned Parenthood affiliates in California, the organization's contribution to StemExpress' business was even less than that. Under federal law, StemExpress couldn't earn a profit from the fetal cells. (For an excellent roundup of the StemExpress case, check out David Jensen's indispensable California Stem Cell Report.)

Yet thanks to the work of the Center for Medical Progress -- a misnomer if ever there was one -- StemExpress found itself entrapped in what it calls "a vortex of public animosity stirred up by CMP's crusade to brand everyone associated with Planned Parenthood as evil criminals."  

CMP's technique is already notorious. Masquerading as legitimate customers seeking fetal cells and tissues, its agents met with Planned Parenthood and StemExpress officials and secretly taped them. They then released videos catching the officials in the act of talking bluntly, even crudely, about the techniques of collecting and distributing fetal tissues. Because the released videos have been heavily edited, CMP's assertions that the officials are acting illegally must be treated with great doubt. 

StemExpress, for its part, asserts that CMP agents went to great lengths to conceal their true identities. They approached StemExpress at a conference using fake names and proffering IDs identifying themselves as representatives of a legitimate business interested in buying fetal tissues, and even signed nondisclosure agreement as the contacts proceeded. This way, StemExpress says, they acquired internal company documents which they've posted publicly, despite their commitment to confidentiality.

CMP founder David Daleiden and the group's lawyers don't exactly deny all this in their legal responses to StemExpress; they say that the meeting with Dyer and her colleagues took place in a restaurant, so she had no right to expect privacy. (StemExpress says she took plains to ensure that the conversation couldn't be overheard.) And even though California law prohibits recording a conversation without the consent of all parties, they plead that they're exempt from the rule because they were engaged in gathering "evidence of a felony involving violence against the person." (That is, unborn children.)

Among the most disturbing aspects of this affair is its effect on the legal and often necessary use of fetal tissue in biological research. It's true that advances in science have made this less important than it used to be, but it's also true that it's still needed in work toward cures of muscular dystrophy, diabetes, degenerative eye disease and other conditions. CMP's campaign threatens this whole line of inquiry, because any business or nonprofit that serves these researchers will have to ask whether it's worth trying to resist political pressure or the threat to employees' safety.

Then there's the sophistry of the political attack on Planned Parenthood, which brings reproductive health services to millions of women, overwhelmingly through services other than abortion. The least thoughtful and responsible of our political leaders are happily using "Planned Parenthood" as a dog whistle against healthcare rights for all, in the same way they earlier used the equally misleading campaign against ACORN to undermine nonprofit community services.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush cite their defunding of Planned Parenthood as badges of honor in their presidential campaigns, which prompted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to ask from the floor of the Senate: 

"Do you have any idea what year it is? Did you fall down, hit your head, and think you woke up in the 1950s or the 1890s? Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States Senate would be spending its time trying to defund women's healthcare centers."

She shouldn't be so surprised. When the enemies of reproductive rights don't have the facts or the law behind them, they know they can exploit political opportunism. And that's never in short supply. 

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