How Planned Parenthood hoax avoids the truth

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Abortion, Planned Parenthood debate a permanent condition for U.S; recent right-wing video hoax doesn't add any new truth
  • He says videos show medical realities that are uncomfortable, not nefarious. Transcript shows Planned Parenthood doing its job

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Years ago, when I hosted a daily talk-radio show, one of the cardinal rules laid down by my program director was to avoid booking guests or taking phone calls from listeners who wanted to debate abortion, gay marriage or the death penalty. All three issues -- and especially abortion -- were considered a conversational dead-end, on which nearly all intelligent adults have already made up their minds.

Any sort of abortion "debate" would inevitably turn into a shoutfest yielding circular arguments, bad feelings and bored listeners.
    Errol Louis
    I thought about that rule of thumb as I read about the elaborate media hoax ginned up by the Center for Medical Progress, a right-wing group trying to discredit and defund Planned Parenthood.
    Taking a page from the falsehoods and selectively-edited videos that brought about the defunding and bankruptcy of the left-wing advocacy group ACORN, the Center for Medical Progress strategy is to create a narrative, claim that its videos constitute damning evidence, and repeat that story enough times to give politicians the "proof" they need to attack Planned Parenthood.
    That plan appears to have fizzled already, with the failure of a Senate vote this week to defund Planned Parenthood. But that won't stop the anti-abortion advocates, who will always see themselves as just one more rally, prayer vigil or media hoax away from ultimate victory.
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    Despite the extensive preparation and deceit that went into the plan, the hoax won't shift the country's decades-long stalemate over abortion by so much as a millimeter. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
    With an extraordinary degree of planning, the Center for Medical Progress appears to have secured tax-exempt status in 2013 for a fake company it set up called Biomax Procurement Services. The company's "representatives" contacted Planned Parenthood staffers and led them into conversations that were secretly recorded. The result, according to the hoaxers' website, was "a 30-month-long investigative journalism study by The Center for Medical Progress, documenting how Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted babies."
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    That last part -- the claim that Planned Parenthood "sells the body parts of aborted babies," the centerpiece of the whole multi-year effort -- is flat-out untrue, and the lie is exposed by the Center's own undercover videos. Anyone who doubts this should plow through the transcripts of the conversations on the video. More on that in a moment.
    By law, women getting abortions can voluntarily donate the tissue from that procedure to medical research, and by law the abortion provider can request nominal reimbursement $30 to $100 in most cases -- for saving, packing and shipping the tissue to a research firm.
    The details of the process are enough to trouble anyone: non-medical people don't talk about the price of requesting, removing and shipping organs and pieces of flesh from place to place. Most of us would freak out if we listened to professionals in the local hospital, funeral home or medical examiner's office discuss details of how a dying person's request to have their body parts donated for transplants or scientific research actually gets carried out.
    It turns out that cadavers, livers, kidneys, eyes and other organs don't walk themselves over to the local hospital or medical school for free.
    For that matter, I'd urge anybody who has purchased an insurance policy that covers accidental death and dismemberment to peruse the fine print, which places dollar amounts indicating varying degrees of financial recovery for losing combinations of thumbs, fingers, eyes, legs and limbs.
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    So let's acknowledge up front that some startling, even grisly conversations will inevitably follow when women getting an abortion agree to donate the stem cells and other tissue to scientific research. But that doesn't equate to selling body parts.
    Transcripts of the videos created by the Center for Medical Progress show instances of the hoaxers posing as medical middlemen, trying to lure Planned Parenthood staffers into talking about how money gets paid to abortion providers who take nominal reimbursements for moving body tissue from clinics to research facilities.
    And in case after case, what emerges is medical professionals highly aware and cognizant of their duty to be careful and ethical about their words and actions.
    "Really their bottom line is, they want to break even. Every penny they save is just pennies they give to another patient. To provide a service the patient wouldn't get," says Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood Federation.
    Later in the same conversation she says: "we're not looking to make money from this. Our goal is to keep access available. And if we do something that makes a target, that just removes access for everybody."
    And later: "Our goal, like I said, is to give patients the option without impacting our bottom line. The messaging is this should not be seen as a new revenue stream, because that's not what it is."
    On and on it goes, in each of these supposedly "bombshell" videos, forming what could be called an inkblot conversation, similar to the Rorschach tests in which the viewer looks at an inkblot and describes what picture they see.
    To those already convinced that abortions should be safe, legal and rare, it looks like Planned Parenthood is responsibly doing exactly what a medical provider should. People who already want to ban all abortions everywhere will see the conversations as some nefarious trade in baby parts.
    In other words, the videos are less an investigative expose than a mirror in which a divided nation can look at its view on abortion.