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By Tom Cushing

How to Demagogue an Issue: Planned Parenthood in the Cross-hairs

Uploaded: Aug 18, 2015


This blog follows-on Roz's recent epistle on Planned Parenthood, which developed a spirited following in the threads until she got tired of the associated nonsense (welcome, Roz, to my blog's world). I will assume that you already know how you feel about abortion, and nothing written here is intended to change those values-laden views (even if I my powers of persuasion were up to it, which they're not).

I am concerned, however, about how this issue gets demagogued, and the fact that candidates are relying-, passing- and counting-on voters to choose Not to inform themselves regarding actual factage. Please read on, if you're interested in proving 'em wrong.

Planned Parenthood (PP) has been a whipping-child of the Right for many years. Its Connecticut leader was the 'Griswold' plaintiff in the famous right-to-privacy case that overturned the state's ban on all contraception(!) in the 1960s. And then there's TX Senator Kyl's more recent ridiculous exaggeration that 90% of PP's services are abortions. Fact-checking demonstrated that the actual number is between 3% (services) and 10% (clients). If you don't care about that difference because 3% of a large number is too many, then perhaps you won't mind if I charge you 90% interest on your car loan, instead of 3%. Even the good Senator acknowledged his hyperbole, if unrepentantly.

A PP rep did do the GOP campaigns a huge favor ('phenomenal' even, in Trumpian terms) by casually and imprecisely discussing fetal tissue donation with someone they had not vouched-for as a potential buyer. The resulting, precisely-edited clandestine video made her sound like a callous Merchant of Spare Baby Parts. It takes some digging to actually understand the issues ? a Q&A format may help.

1 ? Does PP convey fetal tissue samples to researchers, for a price? Yes, $30-100/sample, apparently.

2 ? Doesn't that make them Merchants of Spare Baby Parts? No, as follows. The price is designed to be cost-recovery alone -- they are willing to do it, but not divert money from their other services in the process. The price reflects the extreme care needed to be taken to isolate and prepare the tissue samples. The range reflects the different costs associated with preservation of different samples. According to the President of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (formerly of the National Cancer Institute's office of Biorepository and Biospecimen Research ? yes, both these organizations exist), those numbers are probably below average cost for a typical clinic (per factcheck.org).

3 ? Do they get their patient's consent? Yes. PP only provides the samples with the specific informed consent of the patient, and in fewer than one-half their total cases. It's a reasoned and careful policy from their viewpoint, but unreasonably vulnerable -- without safeguards to prevent just the kind of attack that occurred.

4 ? Are these tissue transfers even legal? Yes. Since 1993, federal law pertaining to federally funded NIH research has allowed donation of fetal tissue from induced abortions. It requires that the conditions above be met. See Title 42 of the United States Code, the public health and welfare provisions.

5 ? What price do the researchers pay for such samples? The samples are further processed and specific cells isolated by providers. Per snopes.com, "a vial containing five million frozen fetal liver CD133+ stem cells can cost more than $24,000."

6 ? Does anybody else do likewise? Yes, many general hospitals provide samples of a wide variety of tissues from their procedures and patients to various kinds of researchers. This includes fetal tissue from miscarriages.

7 ? What kinds of research, and since when? Per factcheck.org: "According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit focused on sexual and reproductive health, tissue from fetuses has been used since the 1930s for a variety of purposes. Perhaps most famously, the 1954 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to researchers who managed to grow polio vaccine in fetal kidney cell cultures."

Further, fetal cells were first used to create vaccines against measles, rubella, shingles and other diseases. "(H)owever, the use of stem cells for therapeutic and research purposes has taken a more central role than fetal tissue. As Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, told Buzzfeed News, "'fetal cells are not a big deal in science anymore.'"

So, such work may be considered to be fruit of a poisonous tree, but it might also be acknowledged that millions of lives have been saved or restored as a direct result of these advances. It seems that nothing about this issue is easy.

8 ? Do any federal (taxpayer) funds contribute to any of this research? Yes. For example (per NYT), "The National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on research using fetal tissue in 2014 with grants to more than 50 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Yale and the University of California in Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. It expects to spend the same amount in 2015 and 2016."

9 ? And, back to PP, how much government money does that organization get ? and does any of it underwrite abortions? In 2014, PP received $528 million -- all of it for the 90+% of its work unrelated to abortions. These include contraception, health screening and consultation, usually provided to low-income women and men under Title X and Medicaid. Does anybody seriously dispute that those services are useful and appropriate?

Per-and-since the so-called Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976 and renewed annually since that time, no federal funds may go to any organization, including PP, for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. So no, the government money does not underwrite abortions.

o ? o -- o

Now, none of this actual information is susceptible to soundbite attack politics. Instead, we get an intramural recess tussle over who can capture the Most-pro-life flag. Lots of exclamation points, very little data, and conscious, conspicuous lies ("It's clearly illegal" says the retired neurosurgeon candidate who claims not to know much, but who ought to at least know that's patently false). And while they decry the use of fetal tissue, and seek to punish PP on utterly unrelated grounds, they ignore the ultimate absurdity that many of them must have voted to allow federal funding of research using ? fetal tissue. The American people deserve better representation, and better campaign conversations ? even the low-info voters on whom these candidates seem to rely.

As I indicated at the start, abortion is everybody's hot-button, non-negotiable issue. So much so that the opposing forces dissipate their energies denigrating each other, instead of collaborating around their obvious mutual interest in minimizing the procedure through practical prevention (meaning not limited to abstinence. One more Q&A: Q -- do you know what they call lovers who abstain? A ? parents) and streamlined adoption.

Obviously, it's an important national discussion ? perhaps so much so that it should not be left to the demagogues to mold public opinion and policy.

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