Birth control, sex education prevent abortions better than gotcha videos

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Serious opponents of abortion should be lined up to support birth control clinics. They should sponsor sex education programs. They should help mothers find work so they can feed and educate their children.

They shouldn’t be using hidden cameras to obtain secret video of doctors who work for Planned Parenthood discussing the distribution of fetal tissue and body parts with people who have misrepresented themselves.

Those tactics are more about gotcha politics and about defunding a nonprofit organization that provides services to women and poor people than they are about helping women prevent unwanted pregnancies.

As the late Dr. Alan Guttmacher, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a leader in the International Planned Parenthood Federation, wrote after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, “those who oppose and those who favor legalization of abortion share a common goal – the elimination of all abortion,” through better, safer, cheaper contraception.

“Each abortion bespeaks medical or social failure,” he wrote.

There is no dispute that two videos released recently by the Center for Medical Progress, which describes itself as “a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances,” are disturbing.

One of them shows Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood, discussing medical procedures used to obtain fetal tissue and body parts, which is legal unless there is a profit made from it. The discussion takes place over lunch and shows Dr. Nucatola munching on a salad with a glass of wine on the table. At the same time she is using blunt language to casually describe procedures that most of us don’t talk about anywhere, let alone over mixed greens.

A second video shows Dr. Mary Gatter, president of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Directors’ Council, again over lunch, discussing the cost of harvesting fetal body parts and ways to keep them intact. Again, it is disturbing to hear someone talking so casually about medical procedures.

But that’s how doctors talk.

In private, many – if not most – medical professionals are not necessarily delicate about describing medical procedures. It is clear from watching the videos that the doctors do not know they are being videotaped and are talking frankly with people who claimed to be fetal tissue buyers.

What’s murky is that the public can’t tell from the videos exactly what is being discussed. David Daleiden, founder of the California-based Center for Medical Progress, is a well-known anti-abortion activist who has previously used undercover sting operations and heavily edited videotape to try to discredit Planned Parenthood.

His group says the first video shows the organization’s plan to “sell baby parts,” and the second shows the doctor “haggling over baby-part pricing.”

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, disagrees with that interpretation. She said the videos are part of a “smear” campaign and were heavily edited to distort and take out of context the talks that were underway.

For too many Americans, whatever description a person believes will depend on which echo chamber he or she listens to, and what a person believes about abortion, women’s health care and when life begins.

What’s indisputable is that the videos are about politics, not about helping women prevent unwanted pregnancies. Planned Parenthood inflames at least two political passions – opposition to abortion and opposition to government programs for the poor. As long as Republicans keep the organization under attack, the party appeals to some elements and antagonizes others.

Misinformation doesn’t stop with doctored videos, either. In 2011, then-Senate Republican whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said on the floor of the Senate that abortion constitutes “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”

When Planned Parenthood countered that abortions make up less than 3 percent of its services, a staff member for the senator said that Kyl’s comment “was not intended to be a factual statement.”

Well, sure. You wouldn’t want factual statements on the Senate floor.

The videos have achieved their intended purpose. They have stirred debate and created a political uproar. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., stood with 16 members of the House Pro-Life Caucus at a news conference calling for a congressional investigation to determine whether Planned Parenthood is illegally selling baby body parts, whether there should be tougher laws regarding fetal tissue donation and whether the organization should be defunded.

One of the videos specifically mentions St. Louis as a potential location to obtain fetal tissue. That prompted formation of a state Senate committee to investigate Planned Parenthood’s procedures for handling fetal tissue and to determine whether state funds were used in such efforts.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican and candidate for Missouri attorney general next year, is chairman of the committee. He is also chairman of the committee that formed to examine Gov. Jay Nixon’s actions surrounding Ferguson last year. That committee, intended solely to embarrass the governor, has been largely inactive.

Mary Kogut, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said the organization has not participated in a fetal tissue donation program.

Donating fetal tissue is a life-saving effort and the women who choose to do so should be commended, not treated like they are participating in a criminal undertaking. Fetal tissue is used for medical research to help find treatments and cures for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Taking politics out of abortion would go a long way toward prevention. That’s where the nation should be headed.