Talking about abortion is difficult and complicated. After 26 years of working in family planning I still feel a unique seriousness and sensitivity when abortion is the topic. It was painful to see that sensitivity missing in some moments within recent videos where people who pretended to be involved in procuring fetal tissue for medical researchers were talking with doctors about tissue donation.
Everyone working to provide abortion care should demonstrate seriousness, respect and compassion while providing that care. I am proud of Planned Parenthood where our family planning services do more to reduce abortion than any of these videos ever will. Planned Parenthood South Texas has never participated in fetal tissue donation, but we hold in high esteem the scientists who conduct that research and the women who have made a personal decision to donate tissue to that research.
The videos presented by anti-abortion activists are slick manipulations designed to create a visual experience that would make us all very uncomfortable. The editing and presentation were largely successful in that regard. But if you examine the full footage, not just the heavily edited segment, you see other moments that show a different conversation and reveal the seriousness that I believe should always be present when abortion is being discussed. I think we should understand these videos for what they are: a choreographed smear campaign.
The people who created these videos are trying to manufacture a moment and use it to shape and control a national conversation in a way that 1) avoids an honest discussion of fetal tissue research, and 2) seeks to turn deeply personal pregnancy decisions into political theatre. All of us, no matter our views on the legality or availability of abortion, should resist this fraudulent campaign. We’ve just begun to hear and read media coverage that questions this fake company, the legality of their actions, and even their federal tax filings. I think we will hear more about this group over time.
Meanwhile, let’s think more about medical research that uses donated tissue. In a San Antonio Express-News article on July 19, a Texas Right to Life spokesperson expressed concern about “babies who don’t give consent for their tissue to be used for the sheer purpose of scientific research.” This statement assumes universal agreement on many complex ideas that are often based in spiritual and religious beliefs and therefore certainly not universally held. Further what about the pregnant woman and her authority over medical decisions about her own body. Setting all of that aside, if we end medical research that uses donated tissue then we must talk about what it would mean to give up the polio vaccine, or rubella, or a future equivalent, because fetal tissue research was involved in the development of these vaccines.
Scientific research using fetal tissue has produced medical treatments that have saved and improved lives. All of us need to know and own how these treatments and therapies have come to us, benefitted us and our loved ones. How many among us and our families have relied on medical advancements in the areas of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV medications? When we rely on the medicine that has come from this research, then we are supporting that research, even if only tangentially. We can’t condemn tissue donation and research, and then use its resultant therapies to our benefit and pretend we are not part of what is happening. In this regard, we are all in this together. This connection is undeniable.
So how does any of this relate to the politics of abortion? It shouldn’t. Abortion politics and fetal tissue donation are not linked in the way that the makers of these videos want you to believe. A woman’s decision to have an abortion should always be separate from, and that decision should be completed before, any discussion about tissue donation. This separation is a crucial, ethical standard to ensure that her decision about abortion is not influenced by the possibility of advancing vital research.
Each of us must decide for ourselves whether or not we believe abortion should be safe, legal and accessible. I certainly do. I respect your right to decide that question for yourself. I urge you to be careful about who edits the information you receive and in so doing controls your feelings. I ask you to think through the implications of your position.
*Featured/top image: Planned Parenthood’s new location in the South Texas Medical Center. Courtesy photo.