Planned Parenthood video red herring
Image: Paul Sableman / CC BY 2.0

The term “red herring” comes from the folkloric belief that if a red herring is dragged across a trail hounds are following, it will throw them off the scent.

The recent Planned Parenthood video referred to by right-wing pundits, our own Gov. Gary Herbert, and presidential candidates is a red herring. It is being dragged across the trail of truth and logic by those who would prefer to divert the focus to the alleged horrors associated with a woman’s right to choose. They would divert national attention to the alleged horrors that occur in Planned Parenthood clinics across our country. It is just one more volley in the brawl over abortion.

Planned Parenthood video red herring
Image: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Carly Fiorina challenged Hillary Clinton to watch the video and remain unmoved. I took up Ms. Fiorina’s challenge. If the video was as heinous and brutal as she described, I wanted to know. It would certainly cause me to rethink my support of the Planned Parenthood organization. The charge, the hot button, is that Planned Parenthood harvests tissue and body parts of aborted fetuses to sell for profit. And if that were an accurate portrayal of what occurred, I would be writing a different article.

But the video has been largely and widely discredited as heavily edited using stock footage that cannot be linked to any Planned Parenthood clinic and intentionally misleading, if not blatantly false.

And to complicate the matter even more, certain Republicans, among them Utah Senator Mike Lee, have said that they will not vote for a budget that contains funding for Planned Parenthood. The drums are beating for another government shutdown, and we know how well that worked the last time.

Planned Parenthood video red herring
Image: Beth Kanter / CC BY 2.0

So let’s take a step backward from the precipice of high drama and mine for facts.

First, consider Planned Parenthood. By independent assessments, only about 3 percent of its services nationwide involve abortions. Here in Utah, only one of the 15 clinics in the state performs abortions. By federal law, not one dime of federal aid can fund abortion, so the charge that federal money is being used to support abortions is patently false.

Next, let’s examine the charge that Planned Parenthood sells body parts and tissue from fetuses for profit. In truth, it is legal to transfer fetal tissue after abortions for research as news sites like the Washington Post and Gawker have noted. In the video, Dr. Deborah Nucatola asserted ten times that when a patient wishes to donate tissue for research, the clinics charge between $30 and $100 dollars for preparation and transfer of the material to research facilities. Also, it’s perfectly legal.

Planned Parenthood video red herring
Image: S. MiRK / CC BY 2.0

Not only is the use of such tissue legal, the medical community credits fetal tissue research with supporting progress that would have been unimaginable without it. In the New England Journal of Medicine, lawyer and bioethicist Alta Charo explains that since the biological material from aborted fetuses is a rich source of stem cells, scientists say these donations can also help them study a host of degenerative diseases. Fetal tissue is used to develop new ways to treat AIDS, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, cancer, and eyesight loss.

Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue,” Charo writes. “Every child who’s been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us (and give even the unvaccinated the benefit of herd immunity). This work has been going on for nearly a century, and the vaccines it produced have been in use nearly as long. Any discussion of the ethics of fetal tissue research must begin with its unimpeachable claim to have saved the lives and health of millions of people.”

That resonates with me. I’ve lost loved ones to cancer, and my own eyesight has been compromised by a disease that is treated by the use of a drug once reserved for cancer patients.

Planned Parenthood video red herring
Image: Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

And finally, what happens if the other side wins and Planned Parenthood clinics are forced to close their doors? Last year, clinics served nearly 3 million women, 80 percent of whom were poor. How will they gain access not to abortions but to all other sorts of health care, ranging from birth control to cancer screenings?

In August of this year, Gov. Herbert announced that he would defund Planned Parenthood of the federal pass-through grant dollars after the aforementioned videos went viral. Utah seems to think that providing such access won’t be much of a problem.

“We can distribute the [Planned Parenthood] money to other partners,” said Tom Hudachko from the Utah Department of Health. He made no mention of the burden that such a transfer of responsibility might cause to those partners on the receiving end. Hiring and training staff and expanding facilities, education, and outreach come to mind. And even if this were possible in Utah, imagine the administrative nightmare it would create in densely populated states like California and New York.

Planned Parenthood video red herring
Image: Charlotte Cooper / CC BY 2.0

Bert Lance, who was Jimmy Carter’s director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1977, is credited with the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The rest of his statement seems particularly apropos in this context. “That’s the trouble with government. Fixing things that aren’t broken.”

The images portrayed in the video are immensely disturbing, as are the allegations. If they are true. But they aren’t. Not only has Planned Parenthood done nothing illegal, it has also done nothing that rises to my standard of being morally reprehensible. Rather, the ethical use of fetal tissue to further medical research is a most beneficial outcome when a woman makes the heart-wrenching choice to terminate her pregnancy. I applaud the women who think of others’ well-being at such a deeply personal time. And I stand with Planned Parenthood in the services they perform.



  1. it is a scientific FACT that babies in utero can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation. Anyone who advocates for these late term abortions using a woman’s “right to choose” as an argument is morally bankrupt. If the author of this article knew anything about Senator Mike Lee, she would know that he is fighting to end these late term abortions, not against a woman’s right to choose. At some point, the tiny human’s right not to be killed has to be considered as well.

  2. It is a political propaganda “Factoid” that fetuses in utero can feel pain at 20 weeks – it is certainly not a scientific fact. Though I guess if it is repeated enough times, it becomes an actual political fact, though never a ‘scientific fact’. Almost zero 20-week plus abortions are ‘by choice’ – at this late stage, most are due to gross defects such as the fetus having no brain. Fetuses without brains do not feel pain.

    I absolutely support your right to your own opinion, but you have no right to your own facts.

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