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.