Planned Parenthood's Politics and the English Language

In 1946, George Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language," an essay in which he complains that people had begun to speak and write without clarity. Laziness is sometimes the culprit, but too often people use pretentious diction and meaningless words to intentionally hide the truth. Orwell wrote, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." The same seems true in our time as well.

People try to shape political reality with their words, and nowhere is this more true than our debates about abortion--er, excuse me, reproductive rights. The two camps self-identify with "Pro-Choice" and "Pro-Life." No one wants to be seen as being anti-anything. Political language becomes a kind of legerdemain which pretends at conjuring reality through illusion and misdirection.

A week ago the political battle over words erupted again. A group called The Center for Medical Progress released a video provocatively entitled "Planned Parenthood Uses Partial-Birth Abortions to Sell Baby Parts." Pro-life outrage began trending on social media almost immediately, but the rebuttals were not long in coming.

Planned Parenthood released a statement maintaining that their clinics engaged in no wrongdoing: "There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood. In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field."

After looking at the entire video, many commentators accepted Planned Parenthood's explanation as truth and accused The Center for Medical Progress of gross exaggeration. 

In the video Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, clearly dismisses the idea that the transaction is the sale of fetal tissue. She says that "this should not be seen as a new revenue stream." She says, "Nobody should be selling tissue. That's just not the goal here." The actor seems to agree, saying, "You're not buying a brain, you're buying a procurement service," and Dr. Nucatola replies, "Exactly. Exactly."

Her manner of expression conforms to the Planned Parenthood statement. She talks about the fees as a method of reimbursement for the clinic to help them break even on the deal. One of her most quoted statements is, "I think for affiliates, 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." But even here she envisions any surplus as being used to further the mission of the nonprofit by helping fund services for patients who cannot afford them.

Dr. Nucatola claims that the fees cover the cost of staff and storage. The clinic's staff will be busy convincing the patient to sign the consent form instead of checking Facebook for the third time that day. That effort will cost the clinic money. Also, the clinic should be reimbursed for the inconvenience of keeping the small corpse in its cooler. Perhaps a fee of fifty dollars won't make an abortionist rich, but as Dr. Nucatola says it's nice to do a little better than breaking even. Every little bit helps the cause.

So these are "reimbursement fees" for procurement, not "sales." And these fees aren't for profiting; they're for the mission. But what makes a "procurement fee" different from a "sale"? It's not actually too complicated. The government allows one and not the other when it comes to the medical industry's use of human tissue.

At the most basic level, this is a distinction without a difference. A product goes in one direction, and money goes in the other. The clinic gives fetal tissue to the collector, and the collector pays a fee to the clinic. Making a distinction between a procurement fee and a sale is an artificial way for the government to make the ethically perilous issue of transferring ownership of human tissue acceptable in certain instances. Hospitals and clinics can recoup the costs of labor and storage associated with donating human tissue.

In other industries, however, labor and storage costs are most commonly recouped in a sale, and businesses build these costs into the price of everything we buy. When Wal-Mart sells a baby doll, the money from the sale covers the cost of transportation, stocking, and storage of the doll. Is this so different from the costs reimbursed through Planned Parenthood's fees?

Of course, the objection will be raised that Wal-Mart is a for-profit entity and that part of the sale price covers Wal-Mart's cost for procuring the item. Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, is a nonprofit entity and the products that they offer (small corpses) are donated.

The distinction between a nonprofit entity and a for-profit business is a dubious one in this instance. People make profits from non-profits all the time. As a university professor I work at a nonprofit, and I can attest that all of us who work there get paid. The question isn't about whether someone's profiting, but who's profiting. For the sake of argument, however, let's allow that nonprofit entities and for-profit entities are different. Let's also allow that the Wal-Mart comparison is less than helpful since Wal-Mart doesn't deal with donated items.

Even so plenty of apt comparisons remain. Take Goodwill Industries for example. Goodwill is a nonprofit organization that accepts donations and then sells those goods to the public. What do they do with the money they receive? They use it to cover their labor and storage costs. Anything extra goes towards furthering their mission of "helping people reach their full potential through education, skills training and the power of work."

Goodwill calls what it does "sales." The people who shop there call it "sales." If Planned Parenthood's lawyers ran Goodwill Industries they would call it fees to cover the cost of procurement. No matter--it's more or less the same thing.

However, one might object that selling donated items is Goodwill Industries' main service, while selling donated corpses is merely a side service that Planned Parenthood offers. Since it's not their main service we shouldn't call it a "sale." This argument doesn't hold either.

My public library has a table with books for sale that patrons have donated. The library "sells" them. What does the library do with the money received from these sales? The library uses this money to cover its labor and facilities costs. It uses this money to further its mission. Selling books isn't essential to the library's mission, but we still call it a book sale.

Both Goodwill Industries and the public library engage in the same practice that Planned Parenthood does, but everyone acknowledges that what they are doing is selling, while Planned Parenthood wants to pretend that they are merely collecting a procurement fee. What's the difference? The only difference is the product.

It's illegal to sell fetal tissue, so they have to call it something else. If someone donated fetal tissue to Goodwill Industries, would they try to sell it? What would happen if they did? Everyone would recognize that a sale had occurred and that the law had been broken.

Planned Parenthood, however, is a sacred cow with Democrats. Therefore, some politicians and journalists will pretend that describing a financial transaction without using the word "sale" actually changes what has happened. In reality nothing has changed. This is an example of Orwell's Newspeak in which we cannot call things what they are. At one point in "Politics and the English Language," Orwell writes, "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." He wasn't talking specifically about abortion rights, but he might as well have been. Let us hide barbarism with vague euphemisms. Let us hide the horror behind ugly and inaccurate words. 

Both sides of the abortion debate muster language in an attempt to shape the political narrative. The question, however, isn't whether both sides do it. The question is which side's use of language more truthfully describes reality. Those who wish to deny the reality of abortion will continue to refer to "procurement fees for fetal tissue." In plain English, we call it selling dead baby parts.

Collin Garbarino is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University. He enjoys discussing church history, mystery novels, and Louisiana culture. His favorite conversation partners are his wife and four children