Planned Parenthood, Tissue Donation, and American Politics: A Call to Separate the Debate in the Media


Macey Henderson

Publish date

July 16, 2015

by Macey L. Henderson, JD and Brianna L. Doby

The controversy over Planned Parenthood seems to be as old as time in American politics, but now the public perception of donated tissue for medical research might be at stake. Most recently, a video surfaced alleging to show the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood engaging in what appears to be the buying and selling of tissue from fetuses to a start-up biotech firm. Let’s be clear: This is not the first attack on Planned Parenthood, nor will it be the last. However, this undercover investigative effort by the somewhat mysterious scientific Center for Medical Progress is a ripe opportunity to get the facts straight about the reality and current practice of donated tissue for research or transplantation in the United States. It is against federal law to buy or sell human tissue in the United States (42 U.S. Code § 289g–2 – Prohibitions regarding human fetal tissue). It is also legal, safe, ethical, and practical to pay for the transport of donated tissue for medical research.

Here are the facts:

  • The legal termination of a pregnancy can provide the opportunity for tissue donation to medical research.
  • Donated fetal tissue has been used in medical research since the 1930s, and was integral to the development of the polio vaccine (and the 1954 Nobel Prize in Medicine).
  • Facilities that recover tissue do so after they have obtained informed consent based on Best Practices for Biospecimen Resources.
  • Without donated tissue, biomedical research and innovation to save and heal serious medical conditions would be hindered.
  • There are monetary costs to the recovery, preservation, and safe transport of tissue for donation and transplantation. The safe preservation, transport, and delivery of donated tissue to a qualified medical research facility is a verifiable, quantifiable cost of conducting research.
  • Safe preservation and transport of any biological materials rightfully requires an additional level of time, training, and expertise.
  • Safe preservation and transport of tissue honors the patient’s/patient family’s autonomous donation decision, promotes process quality assurance, and is aligned with the goals of public health.
  • Tissue banks are regulated and audited entities.

Is this story about reproductive rights, or about tissue donation? What is it, exactly, that the Center for Medical Progress is attacking? What if the entity recovering donations wasn’t Planned Parenthood? Is this an attack on tissue donation or just another attack on women’s health providers?

In the late spring of 2012, a 8-pound, 11-ounce girl was stillborn in Ohio. Sophia Slifka’s family reeled from her death. Her family worked through grief-stricken questions that the unexpected death of a newborn baby can bring. In the midst of the sorrow, the call came asking if her parents would consider donation. They said “yes.”

As NBC News reports, “‘Obviously, it was the worst moment of my life,’ said mother Deanna Slifka, 28, of Youngstown, Ohio. ‘But I knew there had to be more to her life than 39 weeks inside of me. She held not just the potential to save another baby, but to save another parent as well.’”

The recovery, preservation, and transport of Sophia’s donation included legally incurred costs to tissue donation and medical research. Where would the Center for Medical Progress stand in Sophia’s case? Tissue was recovered, donated, and transported — with associated monetary costs — so that a family could help others, even in the midst of their own loss.

The same could be said of the women who provided consent for tissue donation after termination. One family, helping another, even in the midst of their own difficult moments.

Now the politics…

Louisiana has now launched an investigation into Planned Parenthood, calling on help from the FBI, as its conservative Governor Bobby Jindal is striving to earn a spot on the crowded debate stage of GOP presidential candidates.

Ben Carson has tweeted: “#PlannedParenthood and their enablers must be stopped from these barbaric practices. #HealthInspireRevive”

The only female pro-life candidate, Carly Fiorina, has used the claims in the video to rally her base, as reported by KTLA: “This isn’t about ‘choice.’ It’s about profiting on the death of the unborn while telling women it’s about empowerment.”

Let’s be clear: Tissue donation for medical research is an honorable choice, and one that enables medical innovation. Calling a donor family’s decision “barbaric” is out of bounds. Combining the Planned Parenthood debate with an attack on informed consent for donation is dangerous. Those are separate moral and ethical discussions, and should not be conflated for the sake of political maneuvering. Let’s separate the debate.

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