October 1, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Perspectives on Planned Parenthood Fetal Tissue Video

You probably have heard by now about the controversial video (below) showing the senior director of medical services of Planned Parenthood, Deborah Nucatola, discussing the procurement and distribution of fetal tissues from abortions for research.

The film was taken secretly using a hidden camera by anti-abortion activists who concealed their real identities. It was edited for negative impact, raising questions about fairness and context.

Media Matters pointed to three major edits that changed the context in negative ways in terms of perception, making the video in their opinion deceptive. For instance, we do not see in the video the part where Nucatola says, “Nobody should be selling tissue”. The facts seem to be that the Planned Parenthood fees for the tissues are only for the costs involved in the processing and shipment.

One of the firms involved in the fetal tissue distribution is StemExpress of Placerville, CA. You can read more on the controversy and that California connection here in an article in our local paper, the SacBee. Their Editorial Board also published an editorial criticizing the video and bemoaning its politicization.

I agree with that editorial, but they stumbled a bit right at the end by citing the Gordie Howe stem cell case as an example of a reason for why we need fetal research. Dang, I wished they had done a bit more reading on that to realize that case is probably not the best example to cite.Planned Parenthood

The ethical issues involved in the procurement and use of human fetal tissue must be taken very seriously and things such as appropriate maternal consent are crucial. Nonetheless and as much as it is uncomfortable to watch Nucatola somewhat casually chatting about fetal tissue over her lunch, it seems to me that this situation is indeed mostly about advancing a political agenda.

So, regardless of the motives behind the video, was Planned Parenthood “caught” discussing practices that were possibly unethical? Mostly it seems like the answer is, “no”.

However, in the NYT bioethicist Art Caplan was quoted with his concern about one particular practice mentioned in the video by Nucatola: manipulation of the fetus and how the abortion might done in a specific way based on the tissues that are wanted in order to preserve tissues for certain research uses:

“Dr. Caplan said one practice that Dr. Nucatola described in the video was clearly unethical: manipulating the fetus in the womb and using surgical tools in ways meant to preserve certain organs for researchers.

“You cannot, must not, alter how or when you do an abortion simply to obtain tissues you want,” Dr. Caplan said. “Basically, the only concern is the health and safety of the mother.”

Caplan goes on to say he favors an investigation, but by experts rather than politicians:

The allegations against Planned Parenthood should be investigated, he said. But, he added: “I’d like to see it done by independent experts, not by 15 presidential candidates in Congress. It would turn into a presidential-posturing festival.”

While Caplan downplayed the importance of fetal research in another interview on BuzzFeed Science, stem cell expert, Jeanne Loring, was quoted there in the same piece about the usefulness of some fetal research:

“Fetal cells are not a big deal in science anymore,” bioethicist Art Caplan of New York University told BuzzFeed News. “What happened is stem cell tech then came on board, and gene therapy — there’s just other techniques now. ”

Some scientists disagree, pointing out that fetal cells remain useful for medical research. “I understand why people would want tissues like this,” Loring said.

It’s remarkable how little science and medicine know about human development compared to that of mice or fruit flies, and that gap represents a significant problem for human health and medicine. As this video situation evolves we can hope that the politicization remains at a minimum and that the focus sticks to facts. Especially since we are in the middle of a presidential election campaign, however, that hope may be naive.

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