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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An open letter to Planned Parenthood


[Today's guest post is by Zak Schmoll.]

Dear Planned Parenthood,

There have clearly been plenty of factual statements, opinions, mischaracterizations, assessments and judgments about your fetal tissue donation program recently, and admittedly the responses from your organization and defenders of it have been rather unconvincing. The main charge that seems to be being brought against your organization is the fact that you are profiting off of the sale of this tissue which is clearly in violation of the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. §289g-2).

This law states that, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.” Of course, that raises the question as to what valuable consideration is. The law goes on to define that as, “The term ‘valuable consideration' does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.” Clearly then, that is a prohibition on profit. The law does not prohibit money being collected for this service, but it does prohibit money being collected over and above what is necessary to perform this service. Admittedly, there might be a potential loophole in the definition of reasonable, but I wanted to be straightforward with what the law says.

Even though there are incredibly obvious ethical dilemmas and concerns that many of us feel about abortion in general, that is not the issue on the table right now. After all, even without Planned Parenthood, abortion would still be a legal procedure that could be done by another business. That cannot be changed as a result of this investigation. That would take a governmental action on some level or Supreme Court decision which is a conversation that I think is long overdue. Regardless, the issue at hand right now is whether or not there is illegal profit being generated and what consequences should be levied at Planned Parenthood for your actions if those claims are substantiated.

This should be a simple issue. As with any organization, Planned Parenthood should be able to provide a breakdown of the expenses that are used to perform certain services. Organizations design budgets with the explicit purpose of understanding how they will cover their expenses. It should be possible to provide a number for the price of this procedure. It is not hard to imagine that a particular clinic that participates in these programs would know the amount of time that specific employees spend on a case, and the value of that time along with the value of the materials used. Elementary mathematics is all it takes to provide a number.

After that number is calculated, then it would be simple to match that with what your organization is receiving from these procurement companies such as Stem Express. If the numbers match up, the law is being complied with. There’d be no profit being generated. All of this argument about the illegality of your operations would disappear. Again, people would and could certainly be opposed to abortion for other reasons as I am, but this particular case would seem to disappear. Planned Parenthood would not be in legal jeopardy.

So far the evidence shows that prices are negotiable, which is of course what raises this question from many skeptical observers. If the law is being complied with, then the undercover investigator asking about prices should get a simple answer: “The price is being set by our expenses, and once we calculate that, I will be able to let you know.” That is not the answer that has been seen in any of these videos.

For example, in the unabridged transcript from the first video with Dr. Deborah Nucatola, she begins by stating that the price would vary from location to location. That seems reasonable. Cost would be different at different locations. However, she goes on to say near the middle of page 4 on this transcript, “I think for affiliates, at the end of the day, they’re a non-profit, they just don’t want to—they want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they’re happy to do that.”

I agree that they should want to break even. No non-profit wants to take a loss, or they could cease to exist. That’s not the issue at hand here. The issue is the fact that there seems to be some room for negotiability built into the pricing structure for this procedure which by federal law should not have any profit being generated from it. It would not be an issue if Planned Parenthood was making money off of publications they produce which then helps offset some of the other costs of running the organization, there would not be a problem with that. The problem is that the law of the land prohibits profit from being generated from this particular set of procedures. Therefore, it seems to be the case that there should be no room for negotiation on this issue of pricing or doing “a little better.”

The unabridged transcript of the second video with Dr. Mary Gatter is just as troubling. Near the end on page 23-24, they continue discussing compensation, and again, it seems problematic that there is room for negotiation: “It’s been years since I talked about compensation, so let me just figure out what others are getting, if this is in the ballpark, it’s fine, if it’s still low then we can bump it up.” Keep in mind that the context of the conversation is about pricing specimens that would come from a specific office in Pasadena & San Gabriel Valley. As a result, there should be no room for negotiation here. If the law says that you can essentially recuperate your costs, then there should be no question about what other people or other clients are receiving. If that particular clinic is incredibly efficient and is able to make this procedure happen with lower costs, then that is what they should be able to bring in for payment. That is what the law states is allowable. It does not say that you can set your costs based upon the costs of other people.

Bottom line: We should be united across the aisle on this issue. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, if the evidence points to a reasonable belief that there is illegal activity going on, then there is certainly reason to open an investigation into these practices. Yes, I am clearly aware that if Planned Parenthood was penalized as a result of these illegal activities, it would be a major blow to abortion access. That would be incredibly positive in the opinion of some and negative in the opinion of others. Nevertheless, when there is reasonable belief to think that any organization broken the law, then investigation is necessary regardless of your ideology.

Planned Parenthood, release the numbers and shut this entire controversy down. If you have done nothing wrong, then you absolutely have nothing to fear. Hiring PR organizations to quiet journalists and simply reasserting your innocence without any type of justification won't do.

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