Planned Parenthood videos highlight questions about fetal tissue research

In this file photo, Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president, speaks in Orono, Maine. Richards denied any violation of laws regarding videos in which Planned Parenthood officials are seen discussing an alledged sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

In this file photo, Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood president, speaks in Orono, Maine. Richards denied any violation of laws regarding videos in which Planned Parenthood officials are seen discussing an alledged sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

(Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

Who released the videos, and what is the dispute about?

A California nonprofit called the Center for Medical Progress has released five heavily edited videos, which it says were taped in “undercover” operations. Members of the group posed as a company looking to obtain fetal tissues from clinics that perform abortions. The center is run by David Daleiden, who previously was associated with the antiabortion group Live Action.

The group says the first video shows Planned Parenthood Federation executive Dr. Deborah Nucatola casually discussing what it says is the organization’s “illegal trafficking of aborted fetal parts.”

Planned Parenthood denies that the video shows any evidence of illegality. The organization’s president, Cecile Richards, apologized for the tone of Nucatola’s comments, but characterized the video as part of a “smear campaign.”

The Center for Medical Progress and other antiabortion groups also claim the video shows Nucatola admitting that she sometimes changes the way she performs an abortion based on the types of specimens that tissue procurers are seeking, which could violate a federal law passed in 1993 that says that there can be “no alteration of the timing, method, or procedures” used in an abortion “solely for the purposes of obtaining the tissue.”

According to the group, the latest video, shot in a Houston Planned Parenthood clinic and released Tuesday, shows a regional research director for the organization discussing how to alter abortion procedures to get the most intact organs possible. The video includes footage of the activists being shown recently collected fetuses.

What does federal law say about procuring fetal tissue and organs following an abortion?

Donation of fetal tissue and organs for medical purposes is legal, and groups are allowed to charge “reasonable” fees to cover costs associated with “transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control or storage” of the material that a woman has agreed to donate. The 1993 law prohibits doctors from altering abortion procedures to meet the demand for intact body parts and forbids charging anything beyond those reasonable costs.

Violations carry fines of as much as $250,000 and 10 years in prison. Federal funding for fetal tissue research was banned under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton rescinded the funding ban in one of his first acts in office, and since then the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on fetal tissue research.

What is Planned Parenthood’s response to these claims?

The group says the videos have been heavily edited and are part of a “smear campaign” by “militant antiabortion activists.”

Planned Parenthood says it does not profit from such transactions – and that the fees they charge are designed solely to recoup costs associated with helping women donate fetal tissue for “lifesaving scientific research.”

A full transcript of the first video, as released by the Center for Medical Progress, provides further context for some of the statements made, including discussions about the types of expenses incurred that factor into the cost of acquiring a specimen, and statements by Nucatola that “nobody should be ‘selling’ tissue.”

Shortly after the first video emerged, Richards released a video apology for Nucatola's apparent lack of compassion, but stressed that the group has done nothing wrong.

In a statement responding to politicians threatening to investigate or even de-fund Planned Parenthood, spokesman Eric Ferrero said practitioners “do this important work … with full, appropriate consent from patients, under the highest ethical and legal standards, and with no financial benefit for the patient or Planned Parenthood.” The organization has said calls for investigation into their operations and efforts to de-fund them are politically motivated.

What is done with the fetal tissue, and why is it so desirable for research?

According to the American Society for Cell Biology, fetal cells are particularly useful for medical research because of their ability to quickly divide, grow and adapt to new environments.

Cell lines, or samples of cells that can continue to grow in the laboratory and are self-sustaining, are critical for the reproduction of human viruses.

They are also less likely to be rejected by the body’s immune system, which means they could be implanted and studied in patients with Parkinson’s, diabetes and heart disease.

Fetal tissues allow researchers to study normal fetal development and birth defects, the organization says, and studies have shown “great potential” for fetal tissues to be implanted in humans to treat and prevent diseases.

Why do antiabortion groups object to fetal tissue research?

Antiabortion groups oppose using fetal cells obtained from abortions, but most don’t object to the use of fetal tissue from stillbirths and miscarriages.

These groups have argued that research should not be supplied by what they see as an immoral procedure, abortion, and that certain groups are profiting from killing human life, which they believe begins at conception.

“If the material is obtained from the killing of a human being, then it is not appropriate to use for any kind of research,” said Jim Sedlak, vice president of antiabortion group American Life League.

“We’re talking about brutally killing members of the human family and then exploiting them for their body parts. These are not practices that should be tolerated in a humane society,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

Sedlak says that early claims that fetal tissue transplantation and other research could lead to cures for debilitating diseases have not panned out. (According to the American Society for Cell Biology, a 2001 clinical trial to treat Parkinson’s with fetal cells was stopped after some patients began getting “severe neurological side effects.”)

What gains have come out of fetal tissue research over the years?

Medical and scientific research using fetal tissue has existed since at least the 1930s.

Such research was instrumental, for example, in developing the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Other vaccines, including those for rubella and chickenpox, also were developed using human cells, some of which were obtained from legal abortions in the 1960s.

In his testimony to a congressional panel in 2009, Dr. Samuel M. Cohen of the University of Nebraska said that researchers there were using fetal cells to better understand how Alzheimer’s and dementia related to AIDS have developed.

What has the fallout been?

Similar videos have surfaced in the past and have not had a significant impact on national opinion regarding abortion – a subject on which many Americans on both sides hold firm views. But the current videos have served as a rallying call for antiabortion groups and lawmakers. Several states have announced investigations or inspections, including Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas.

On the other side of the aisle, congressional Democrats have asked U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch to look into the Center for Medical Progress, which is registered as a Sacramento nonprofit but has an Irvine address. California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris has said she plans to review the videos to see whether the nonprofit violated any registration or reporting requirements by posing as a fake company.

On July 28, hundreds of names and email addresses of Planned Parenthood Federation of America employees were leaked after a cyberattack on the organization. A post by the hacker group claiming responsibility said they were "social justice warriors."

Antiabortion groups say they hope the videos will spur a larger backlash that shifts the conversation about abortion

“These practices exist in large part because they are hidden from public view,” said the National Right to Life Committee's Johnson. “We're hopeful that as these things come more sharply into focus and the veils of euphemism are torn aside, there will be more support for legislation“ banning abortion, Johnson said. One such piece of legislation is a ban on nearly all late-term abortions, passed by the House in May. The measure, which would bar most abortions beyond 20 weeks into a pregnancy, is not likely to survive a Senate vote or President Obama's veto.

What has the impact been on Republicans and the presidential campaign?

Republicans have seized on the issue, hoping the videos might change public sentiment toward Planned Parenthood, and more generally toward abortion and Democrats' stance.

Several congressional Republicans have threatened a government shutdown if Planned Parenthood funding is not stripped from the federal budget.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced an amendment to the tax code that would prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving federal dollars for family planning. A Democratic-led filibuster blocked the bill Monday on a largely party-line vote, but Republicans have indicated that they will probably try again. Paul and fellow presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted in support, while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was opposed.

Cruz has also called on lawmakers to investigate Planned Parenthood. Three congressional committees are making inquiries into the organization.

On Monday, Republican presidential candidate and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that Louisiana is dropping its Medicaid contracts with Planned Parenthood and will no longer reimburse the organization for the cancer screenings, birth control, gynecology exams and sexually transmitted disease treatment services it provides there.

Jeb Bush, another Republican presidential candidate, walked back a statement he made Tuesday questioning federal spending on women's healthcare. Responding to a question about Planned Parenthood, Bush said federal funds should not go to the organization.

"You could take dollar for dollar — although I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women's health issues — but if you took, dollar for dollar, there are many extraordinary fine organizations, community health organizations, that exist, federally sponsored organizations, to provide quality care for women on a variety of health issues,” Bush continued, speaking to the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. Bush later said that he did not mean to dismiss women's health funding broadly and was referring only to the $500 million in federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted at Bush, saying he was "absolutely, unequivocally wrong." Clinton has called the videos disturbing even as she stood behind the group.

“If this feels like a full-on attack on women’s health, that’s because it is,” Clinton said in a video released Monday in which she specifically criticized Republican presidential candidates Bush, Scott Walker and Rick Perry. "When they attack women's health, they attack America's health."

Are there other videos coming?

It's unclear. A temporary restraining order issued by by a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles on Friday prohibits the Center for Medical Progress from releasing any video of three high-ranking officials with a company that provides fetal tissue to researchers. The video was taken at a restaurant in May.

Daleiden, a leader with the center, said Placerville, Calif.-based StemExpress was using "meritless litigation" to cover up illegal deeds, and he insisted the organization "follows all applicable laws" in what he calls their investigative journalism.

One of the previously released videos featured a woman identified as a former StemExpress phlebotomist.

On Friday, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a restraining order preventing the release of videos recorded at an annual meeting of the National Abortion Federation last year in San Francisco. The order also prohibited the antiabortion group from disclosing the names or addresses of federation members or dates and locations of future meetings, saying it would subject them to harassment.

According to court filings, Daleiden and two others presented fake driver's licenses to register for the conference and signed nondisclosure agreements promising not to record the meetings there.

The orders will be in place until Aug. 18 and Aug. 27, respectively.

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report. Times staff writers Kurtis Lee, Seema Mehta and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

For more need-to-know news, follow me @cmaiduc


Aug. 5, 4:34 p.m.:

This article has been updated to include additional information about presidential candidates and the fifth video released Tuesday.

This article was originally published on July 27.