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Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
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Undercover video sting of Planned Parenthood is off-base, as usual

There appears to be no end to the creative deviousness of people looking to harm Planned Parenthood, America's most important reproductive healthcare provider.

A few years ago, a UCLA student named Lila Rose posed as a teenager impregnated by an adult partner at various Planning Parenthood clinics around the country. Her surreptitious videos attempted to prove that despite its own policies about protecting minors, Planned Parenthood refuses to report statutory rape, as required by law. A couple of clinic staffers suggested that Rose not tell the truth about her imaginary partner’s age, and at least one was fired, but as always, Planned Parenthood survived.

The latest attack features Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola. She was secretly filmed in conversation with a pair posing as executives from an imaginary Irvine human biologics company seeking sources of fetal tissue for medical research. An anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress has taken credit for the operation. The center describes itself on its website as “a group of citizen journalists ... concerned about contemporary bioethical issues that impact human dignity.”

It was founded in 2013 by David Daleiden, “a citizen journalist with nearly a decade of experience in conducting investigative research on the abortion industry," the website says. According to his biography, Daleiden is a longtime associate of Rose, who collaborated with conservative activist James O’Keefe on earlier anti-abortion projects.

The meeting with Nucatola apparently took place some time last year over lunch in Orange County.

The nearly three-hour conversation was condensed into a lurid eight-minute video put out by the Center for Medical Progress. It was edited to make Nucatola, and Planned Parenthood, look like profit-mongering human-parts traffickers who could put Cruella de Vil to shame.

Leaving aside the potential violation of California law, which forbids recording a person without consent, the narrative pushed by the anti-abortion activists is a total crock.

I have read and reread the 60-page transcript of the meeting, and I urge you to do the same.

I find nothing in it that smacks of wrongdoing. The worst that can be said is that Nucatola appeared to speak about aborted fetuses in a manner that might be regarded as callous by some. Her offense, if such a thing can be be said to exist, is one of tone, not substance.

Nucatola repeatedly told her lunch companion phonies that Planned Parenthood collects fetal tissue for medical research because patients undergoing abortions have asked for the service.

“I think every one of them is happy to know that there’s a possibility for them to do this extra bit of good,” she said.

Again and again, despite their attempts to get her to say otherwise, she tells them that there is no profit motive involved and that any money paid by research companies for tissue samples offsets the extra staff time involved in providing informed consent to patients and collecting and storing the tissue itself.

“Every penny they save is just pennies they give to another patient,” she said. “To provide a service the patient wouldn’t get.”

Nucatola spoke about the care taken during some procedures to make sure that fetal organs remain intact. Sometimes a fetus may be turned from a head-first position to a feet-first position to preserve its head. Is that gross and upsetting to imagine? Of course.

Today, PPFA President Cecile Richards acknowledged as much. “Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide,” she said. “In the video, one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion. This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements.”

But is it illegal or unethical? I cannot see how.

Nucatola said repeatedly that Planned Parenthood physicians do not change their procedures to accommodate the needs of medical researchers to whom they are providing fetal tissue.

“You should always do the procedure the same,” Nucatola said. “And that’s what the providers try to do. They’re not gonna treat these patients any differently than they would treat any other patients, just the disposition of the tissue at the end of the case is different.”

This story is tailor-made for the anti-abortion histrionics of conservative outlets like Fox News. And it’s a gift to anti-choice politicians, who have long sought to defund Planned Parenthood, which performs more than a quarter of all abortions in this country.

House Speaker John Boehner has vowed to investigate. And members of the crowded GOP presidential field have tripped over themselves to condemn Planned Parenthood, always a handy punching bag for them. Officials in Ohio, Indiana and Georgia have ordered investigations into whether Planned Parenthood sold organs from aborted fetuses.

Their misplaced fervor ignores the fact that fetal tissue has been critical to many medical advances -- perhaps even some from which they have benefitted.

In 2011, Samuel Cohen, a cancer researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center told a House committee that fetal cells were critical to the development of vaccines for German measles, chicken pox and polio.

“Surely,” Cohen told Congress, “obtaining cells from legally obtained abortions for potentially life-saving purposes is ethically permissible and indeed ethically necessary.”

Abortion, for all the controversy around it, is still very much legal in this country. If we are going to have abortions -- and we are always going to have abortions -- we are going to have aborted fetal tissue.

With proper safeguards, why shouldn’t it be used in research that might one day find a cure for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer's, AIDS, dementia, diabetes or heart disease?

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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