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I don't write much about abortion. In over a decade of defacing the Internet with my commentary, I've maybe touched on the subject three or four times. That's because it is virtually impossible to change anyone's mind on the subject. On many matters, I feel confident I can move the needle at least a little bit one way or the other by offering up my opinion, but not on abortion.
But I feel I must write here now because Sunday the Wisconsin Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly had an op-ed published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state's most widely circulated paper, on abortion. Robin Vos writes in response to some heavily edited videos released over the last month by anti-abortion activists, explaining that those videos have prompted him and his colleagues to try to impose new restrictions on Planned Parenthood in the state.
And I write not because, again, I think I will change anyone's mind. I mean, even those videos, edited to suggest Planned Parenthood was selling donated fetal tissue for profit, changed no minds I'm sure. People who hate abortion had confirmed all of their worst fears about Planned Parenthood, and people who support abortion rights had confirmed their belief that there is no depth to which opponents will not sink.
Rather, it's to express my profound disbelief that this state's biggest print enterprise would allow this state's second most powerful politician such free rein to write, without benefit of fact-checking, complete and utter falsehoods in his op-ed. We can disagree on the moral or even constitutional standing of abortion, but facts are facts, and statements that run counter to those facts should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.
You don't even have to dig deep into Vos' writing here to try to tease out some sliver of comment that in the right light, if you squint or take it out of context, might seem kind of ambiguous. No, the opening paragraph of Vos' op-ed has five sentences, and each of those five sentences contains a statement that is demonstrably and obviously not true.
He begins, "The series of shocking videos by the Center for Medical Progress has revealed the inhumane practice that Planned Parenthood has incorporated for profit on the backs of unborn children." He throws in a lot of biased opinion words here – "shocking" and "inhumane," for example – and that's something you see throughout the whole length of his op-ed. But the error of fact comes in when he claims that Planned Parenthood gains "profit" with its handling of donated fetal tissue.
When a woman has an abortion in some Planned Parenthood facilities, she can choose to donate the fetal tissue for research. Planned Parenthood then offers those tissues to researchers, sometimes through a third party broker, but receives only payment enough to cover the costs of handling and transporting the tissue, which it is allowed to do by federal law. As a non-profit, Planned Parenthood's financial details are public; you can read the IRS statements and annual reports online, even. They are not "profiting" from selling tissue.
What's remarkable is that in the videos referenced by Vos, the various Planned Parenthood representatives themselves "caught on tape" say repeatedly that there is no profit in the tissue donation business and that they are not in it for the money. When the non-partisan factcheck.org looked into it, they found that the dollar amounts discussed in the videos probably even meant Planned Parenthood was losing money on the tissue donations. To say that Planned Parenthood is "for profit" because of tissue donations for research is simply false.
Vos' second sentence is no better. He writes, "Its secret business of selling fetal body parts following an abortion is simply horrific." Just because you don't know something doesn't make it a secret. Fetal tissue research has been happening for almost 100 years, according to articles in the very newspaper that published this op-ed from Vos, and even here in Wisconsin major medical discoveries have been made possible because of fetal tissues donated for research.
In 1993, President Clinton lifted the federal ban on fetal tissue research, and in response Congress passed a law regulating it; many Republicans, including some still in Congress and now suddenly opposed to it following the release of those videos, voted for that bill. To call something that is common practice allowed by federal law a "secret" is just a pretty blatant falsehood.
Sentence three: "It deeply sickens me to see Planned Parenthood executives talk about putting a price on aborted baby parts like they're an item in a garage sale." Again, when you get past Vos's loaded words, you see something that just isn't true. The videos are edited in such a way to make it seem like Planned Parenthood is pricing "parts," but the "parts" are offered for free. The prices discussed in the video are, rather, the facilities cost of keeping tissues viable for research and transferring them to those researchers. As noted, they're not high enough that Planned Parenthood is making a profit from them.
And sentence four: "Their references to unborn babies' organs as line items and their efforts to obtain an intact aborted fetus are repulsive." This sentence makes specific reference to the most recent (as I write this) of the heavily edited videos from the anti-choice group in question, a video that seems to focus on that idea of "an intact aborted fetus." The video appears to show a Planned Parenthood employee in Texas suggesting that doctors will go to great lengths to fulfill specific requests for tissue, possibly endangering women or breaking the law.
But the group did release a full transcript of that video, including parts that they edited out of their video showing that patient safety is never compromised and that procedures are not altered. "We can't delay an abortion ... that's unethical. The surgical procedure is going to be the same," the edited-out parts of the video say. Of course, those editing and releasing the videos would not want people like Robin Vos to see Planned Parenthood employees explaining that they won't break ethical standards or take profit from the undercover antichoice spies; that would defeat their purpose.
Vos ends his opening paragraph with, "These videos are a clear indictment of an organization that has no regard for the value of a human life." No regard for the value of a human life? If he's writing that, Vos apparently does not know what Planned Parenthood does.
More than 60 percent of the services provided by Planned Parenthood affiliates are screenings for cancer, testing for and treating STDs, and offering other health care like prenatal services for women wanting to have healthy babies but unable to get care anywhere else. The national organization estimates that one in five women have been to Planned Parenthood for heath services – not abortions – that they could not get elsewhere.
In fact, only 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion, and most of those abortions do not result in the tissue donation that was the focus of the recent videos, the immediate impetus for Vos' op-ed and the new legislation that will put further strain on the ability of Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin to provide health care for women. There are 22 Planned Parenthood centers in Wisconsin – fewer than there used to be; the state "defunded" Planned Parenthood, shutting down five centers that served low-income women with needed health care. Only three even offer abortion services, and none collect donated tissue for research. All provide needed health care.
The vast majority of what Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin does is help women get and stay healthy, often saving lives. Robin Vos would end that, on the basis of videos edited to elicit exactly that response from lawmakers like him. Vos may not be aware of what's edited out of the videos, which is what the activists want. They have an agenda, and that agenda is about to be enacted by the state of Wisconsin.
As I said, I'm not going to change anyone's mind here on the bigger picture of abortion. (I do, however, recommend Katha Pollitt's recent compelling essay, which might change your mind; I don't know.) But I do believe all of us, whatever side of the debate we're on, might have a respect for facts and honesty in the debate about abortion and Planned Parenthood's impact on the health of women in Wisconsin. Robin Vos and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel should be ashamed at the blatant falsehoods they ran in Sunday's paper.