But, frankly, the detail is up for lawyers to debate. What matters about this video is what it appears to reveal about the reality behind America's sanitized image of abortion; the reality of what an abortion is and how it morally compromises us all.
Planned Parenthood protests that the video of Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, shows her talking about the organization's participation in tissue donation programs.
At several of their self-described "health centers," women are invited to donate tissue for scientific research. It's voluntary, perfectly legal and not for profit. Planned Parenthood says that costs for transportation of the material are reimbursed, and that this is what Nucatola is talking about on the tape.
All of this may well be true. But it skips over the bigger ethical questions that the video raises. It's like watching Hannibal Lecter discuss making a human casserole and protesting that all the ingredients were provided willingly.
For starters, Art Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, has directed our attention
to a part in the video where Nucatola describes doctors using ultrasound to know where to grab the fetus to preserve certain organs. Says Nucatola: "We've been very good at getting heart, lung, liver because we know that, I'm not going to crush that part."
Caplan told CNN: "In abortion the primary goal is to give the safest abortion possible. Your sole concern has to be the mother and her health." By contrast, Nucatola gives the impression that Planned Parenthood is "modifying" the way that a termination is carried out to pass on the tissue -- and that's hugely unethical.
Then there's the nature of the dialogue itself. Nucatola sips wine, describing the destruction of fetuses with a frighteningly casual air. Even if you regard abortion as a tragic necessity, or the donation of tissue as a potentially helpful byproduct -- there's something immoral about the way in which it is all discussed over a salad.
"I'd say a lot of people want liver," she says,
before going on to throw out euphemisms for how they are protected from the forceps: "I'm gonna basically crush below, I'm gonna crush above, and I'm gonna see if I can get it all intact." And when the vulgar subject arises of the price of these body parts, she talks like an expert in public relations: "They just want to do it in a way that is not perceived as: This clinic is selling tissue. This clinic is making money off this. In the Planned Parenthood world, they're very, very sensitive to that."
Sensitivity is indeed at the center of the ethical issue the video raises.
Planned Parenthood is sensitive to us getting the wrong idea about what it does. But we're sensitive about not having to find out.
Whoever thinks about the reality of abortion unless they actually have to participate in one? Whoever considers the crushed organs: the hearts, lungs and livers? We all prefer to mask this truth behind euphemisms, of which Planned Parenthood is simply the market leader. Reproductive health centers. Medical services. Procedures. Anything but calling it what abortion really is -- the obliteration of a fetus.
Now, we may argue that sometimes abortion is necessary or a matter of privacy between a woman and her doctor. But that shouldn't stop us from being honest about it. On the contrary, what's troubling about modern society is its habit of dressing up difficult things in comforting language -- discouraging people from dwelling too hard on the realities of what they are doing.
We've been too casual for too long about some of the terrible problems that lie around us -- be they abortions or the poverty and desperation that can drive women to seek one.
The Planned Parenthood video holds up a mirror to a society that has become compromised by horrors that it regards as "every day." The face of 21st-century America is Nucatola's: discussing pulverized lungs and hearts between mouthfuls of salad.