A fact check published 10 days ago by Annenberg’s FactCheck.org has become a touchstone for progressives writing about a series of Planned Parenthood sting videos. But the fact check only looks at the first of those videos and even then seems to miss some important facts.
Everyone from Media Matters to the New Republic to Slate has linked (indirectly in the last case) to the FactCheck piece titled “Unspinning the Planned Parenthood Video” as proof that Planned Parenthood is not selling fetal organs. In addition, the piece has been tweeted over 1,000 times and shared 35,000 times on Facebook.
The first thing to note about the piece is that it has the word “video” (singular) in the title. It only looks at that first video, the one with Dr. Nucatola. Ten days later, FactCheck.org has not revised or updated it, nor has it returned to the topic in a follow-up piece. That means pieces—like the one published Friday at Slate—which refer to it, are really resting their argument on just one of the videos published so far. That’s a convenient way to dodge the argument, given what is in those later videos.
The other thing to notice about the FactCheck piece is its very one-sided handling of what Dr. Nucatola says in the first sting video.
At one point in the unedited video (which was also released by the group), Nucatola says: “Affiliates are not looking to make money by doing this. They’re looking to serve their patients and just make it not impact their bottom line.”
Nucatola also says, “No one’s going to see this as a money making thing.” And at another point, she says, “Our goal, like I said, is to give patients the option without impacting our bottom line. The messaging is this should not be seen as a new revenue stream, because that’s not what it is.”
Nucatola did say those things, but a closer look at the transcript shows why. In Dr. Nucatola’s first statement on the topic of organ donation, she explain the goal is to make it look good [emphasis added]:
I think every provider has had patients who want to donate their tissue, and they absolutely want to accommodate them. They just want to do it in a way that is not perceived as, ‘This clinic is selling tissue, this clinic is making money off of this.’ I know in the Planned Parenthood world they’re very very sensitive to that. And before an affiliate is gonna do that, they need to, obviously, they’re not—some might do it for free—but they want to come to a number that doesn’t look like they’re making money.
Dr. Nucatola continues in this same vein when she explains the prices have to be justifiable in case anyone asks:
You know, I’m — I could throw a number out that’s anywhere from $30 to $100 depending on the facility, and what’s involved. It just has to do with space issues, are you sending someone there that’s going to be doing everything, or is their staff going to be doing it? What exactly are they going to be doing? Is there shipping involved, is somebody coming to pick it up — so, I think everybody just wants to — it’s really just about if anyone were ever to ask them, well what do you do for this $60, how can you justify that?
And that’s why Dr. Nucatola tells the undercover operatives, “You could call them up and say, ‘I’ll pay you double the money,’ and they’re almost more inclined to say no, because it’s going to look bad.”
But despite the fact that PP is very worried about anything that looks like making money, Dr. Nucatola eventually admits they’re willing to do so, “at the end of the day, they’re a non-profit, they just don’t want to — they want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they’re happy to do that.”
Later in the conversation, Dr. Nucatola says something similar, “I mean really, the guidance is, this is not something you should be making an exorbitant amount of money on.” Not an exorbitant amount perhaps, but as she’s said previously, they can do better than break even so long as it “doesn’t look like they’re making money.”
Here is how FactCheck frames Nucatola’s admission: “Nucatola does make one statement in the unedited video that suggests to critics that some clinics would be comfortable with a payment that was slightly more than their expenses for providing the tissue.” Is this really only suggestive to critics? Why isn’t it just a fact that she admitted it despite her obvious concern about getting caught. And is it possible Planned Parenthood has supporters as well? Might the supporters be eager to downplay this admission? FactCheck doesn’t have anything to say about that. It’s another instance of the real story being sidestepped by introducing a partisan narrative, i.e. “Republicans pounced.”
The FactCheck piece does contain three quotes from experts which mostly demonstrate that Planned Parenthood’s guidance to affiliates is working as intended.
Carolyn Compton, the chief medical and science officer of Arizona State University’s National Biomarkers Development Alliance and a former director of biorepositories and biospecimen research at the National Cancer Institute, agreed that this was “a modest price tag for cost recovery.” Compton told us in an email: “‘Profit’ is out of the question, in my mind. I would say that whoever opined about ‘profit’ knows very little about the effort and expense involved in providing human biospecimens for research purposes.”
It’s not clear if Compton has read the full transcript, whether she is aware Planned Parenthood is doing almost nothing to receive these payments, or if she is generally a fan of Planned Parenthood’s work. What we have is a third party saying profit isn’t a possibility when PP’s own medical director is saying, at a bare minimum, that it is a possibility. In fact, Dr. Nucatola is saying they need to be careful because making an obvious or “exorbitant” profit is a genuine danger to the corporation.
Finally, as mentioned above, FactCheck has offered no response to the second and third videos. You may recall that in the second video Dr. Mary Gatter was seen to be discussing prices with the people posing as buyers. She was worried about being low-balled and being put in a bad negotiating position. She joked that she wanted a Lamborghini. All of that seems like profit-seeking talk. Even George Stephanopoulos found it problematic. So far as I know, Stephanopoulos is not a Planned Parenthood critic.
Similarly, the third video shows Dr. Ginde discussing how to put up barriers to the appearance of organ sales and ends with her saying, “I think a per-item thing works a little better just because we can see how much we can get out of it.” Again, this sounds a lot like a someone making a profit-based decision rather than a donation.
There’s no doubt that Planned Parenthood was wary of being caught and that, for exactly that reason, they were careful about the guidance they gave affiliates and how they spoke about the issue to potential buyers. But there is still evidence on the tapes that PP is willing and ready to make a profit so long as they believe they can do so without getting caught. That evidence has mostly been overlooked by FactCheck.org.