In his recent book The Secret Language of Doctors, Brian Goldman describes working as a resident at the Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto. “The nights on call were grueling and relentless,” he wrote. “I can remember running from one sick baby to the next, with little time for even a pee break.” After the first of these punishing shifts, his supervisor, elsewhere described as empathetic and brilliant, said to him, “So Brian, how many babies did you box last night?” Box was slang for coffin. This kind of brutal slang was not unusual; doctors are famously coarse and flippant when they talk amongst themselves.
Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood, made the very serious mistake of talking the way doctors talk in front of the wrong people. In an undercover video that has ricocheted around the Internet and reenergized the national anti-abortion movement, she drinks wine and spears a salad while casually discussing the harvesting and transport of fetal body parts, as well as payment for them. “[A] lot of people want intact hearts these days, they’re looking for specific nodes,” Nucatola says. “AV nodes, yesterday I was like wow, I didn’t even know, good for them. Yesterday was the first time she said people wanted lungs. And then, like I said, always as many intact livers as possible.”
Nucatola thought she was speaking to representatives of a biomedical procurement company, but she was in fact caught in an elaborate sting by a group called the Center for Medical Progress, created by David Daleiden, former director of research at the anti-abortion group Live Action. Founded by a protégé of James O’Keefe, Live Action also specializes in undercover “exposés” of abortion clinics, but a history of selective editing and overblown claims has destroyed its mainstream credibility, which is likely why Daleiden released this video under the auspices of the new group.
Planned Parenthood, it’s important to understand, has done nothing wrong here—that is, nothing aside from falling into a clever trap set by its enemies. The women having abortions choose to donate the fetal remains for research. Nucatola repeatedly makes it clear that the money involved is reimbursement for expenses—the charge that Planned Parenthood is “selling” human body parts is a lie. Any conversation about the logistics of adult organ donation would likely sound similarly cold and ghoulish, particularly if it were selectively edited, as the initially released, widely distributed eight-minute version of this video was.
In the end, however, it may not matter that Planned Parenthood followed the rules. Politically, this is terrible for the organization and for the reproductive-health movement more generally. There are simply too many disturbing moments in the video. The contrast between Nucatola’s breezy tone and big glass of red wine and her discussion of doctors’ prowess in getting “heart, lung, liver” out intact is hard to watch. “I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above,” she says between bites of her lunch.
“There is no doubt that medical personnel have a kind of gallows humor, both to relieve tension and just a coarsening that happens, especially when you do surgery,” says my friend Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice and a longtime abortion rights activist. Nevertheless, she says, “those of us who have worked in this field and hang out with each other may have lost the ability to see how others hear us.”
The narrative about the gap between insider medical lingo and language meant for public consumption simply can’t compete with #PPSellsBodyParts. The right has long accused Planned Parenthood of eugenics and organ trafficking; here is something that looks like “proof,” even if it isn’t. It gives Republican congressmen a pretext to hold hearings and red states an excuse for launching costly investigations, which have already been announced in Texas and Louisiana. (In response to the video, Congress has also canceled a vote on a commemorative breast-cancer-awareness coin, lest some of the funds raised make their way to the Komen Foundation, which works with Planned Parenthood.) It puts pro-choice politicians on the defensive, and may weaken Planned Parenthood’s political sway going into the next election.
Further, it’s a way for the anti-abortion movement to focus the abortion debate on the graphic details of rare, late-term procedures, about which there is less public consensus than there is about early abortion. It serves the same purpose as the ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion,” and as blown-up pictures of bloody fetuses. It induces disgust, a very politically potent emotion, since most people associate things that are gross with things that are immoral. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt describes how researchers asked students at Cornell University to fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing either near or far from hand sanitizer. Those standing closer to it became temporarily more conservative. If something that minor can affect people’s politics, then a video like this one is sure to have a visceral impact.
Nucatola deserves some blame here; she should have been more careful, should not have spoken the way she did in front of people she didn’t know. That said, the scam was sophisticated. Daledein spent years building up his fake biomedical company and maintaining multiple related websites. Assuming Nucatola Googled the group before the meeting, it would have appeared legit.
This probably isn’t going away. The Center for Medical Progress has said it plans to release a new video every week, and Planned Parenthood is bracing for more. Viewed strictly in terms of law and logic, the ongoing expose is, as Kevin Drum says at Mother Jones, a “nothingburger.” But politics is also about values and emotion, and appeals to reason can’t necessarily overcome revulsion. People at Planned Parenthood have long known that they have to be on guard for Live Action moles in their clinics. Now they have to learn to be on guard for them everywhere else, too. They are in the difficult position of needing to behave as if they are doing something dubious and surreptitious, even though they are not. And we—pro-choice advocates—are in the difficult position of trying to counter revulsion with reason, even though it’s less powerful.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Frances Kissling’s first name. It has been corrected.