NEW YORK — Responding to a furor over undercover videos, Planned Parenthood says it will maintain programs at some of its clinics that make fetal tissue available for research, but will cover the costs itself rather than accepting any reimbursement.
Anti-abortion activists who recently released a series of covertly filmed videos have contended that Planned Parenthood officials sought profits from their programs providing post-abortion fetal tissue to researchers. Planned Parenthood said the videos were deceptively edited and denied seeking any payments beyond legally permitted reimbursement of costs.
The new policy — forgoing even permissible reimbursement — was outlined in a letter sent Tuesday by Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, to Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
"Planned Parenthood's policies on fetal tissue donation already exceed the legal requirements," Richards wrote. "Now we're going even further in order to take away any basis for attacking Planned Parenthood to advance an anti-abortion political agenda."
The videos were released, starting in mid-July, by a group of anti-abortion activists calling themselves the Center for Medical Progress. Activists posed as representatives of a biomedical firm and sought to negotiate the purchase of fetal organs from some Planned Parenthood personnel.
David Deleiden, who led the undercover video effort, depicted Planned Parenthood's shift as "an admission of guilt."
"If the money Planned Parenthood has been receiving for baby body parts were truly legitimate 'reimbursement,' why cancel it?" he asked.
Republicans in control of Congress have responded to the undercover videos by launching several investigations of Planned Parenthood, along with efforts to cut off the organization's federal funding. Most of that funding is reimbursement for Medicaid patients receiving cancer screenings, contraception and other non-abortion services.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, described Planned Parenthood's policy change as "a good, tangible result" of the various House investigations. He said his own panel would continue its inquiry into Planned Parenthood's use of federal funding.
Thus far, none of the congressional investigations, nor separate investigations in six states, have verified any law-breaking by Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood says its fetal tissue programs currently take place in only two states — California and Washington — at about a half-dozen of the 700 health centers run by the organization nationwide.
Planned Parenthood's executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, said the Washington state affiliate already had a policy of accepting no reimbursement for its costs, and the California affiliate will now follow the same policy. Staff members in California indicated earlier that reimbursement per specimen generally ranged from $30 to $100, but Laguens said she could not say how much the affiliate received annually in reimbursements or how much it will cost to cover the expenses of the fetal-tissue program.
"I don't think it will have a huge impact on their budget," Laguens said. "For Planned Parenthood, this was always about one thing — honoring the desire of women to contribute to lifesaving research. It was never about money."
While selling fetal tissue for profit is illegal, a 1993 law passed by Congress with bipartisan support allows women who undergo abortions to donate fetal tissue for use in scientific research. The law allowed entities supplying the tissue to recover the costs of running such programs.
During the three-month controversy over the videos, some of Planned Parenthood's critics have called a ban on research using donated fetal tissue. However, there has been strong defense of the practice from within the medical and scientific establishment.
The Department of Health and Human Services, in a letter to Congress in August, said fetal tissue "continues to be a critical resource for important efforts such as research on degenerative eye disease, human development disorders such as Down syndrome, and infectious diseases, among a host of other diseases."
Professor Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center's Department of Population Health, said Planned Parenthood's move was strategically wise.
"The fees are being used to promote the canard that PP is killing babies for profit. They are not," Caplan wrote in an email. "But deciding not to accept reimbursement for any processing or handling would effectively end the lying about what PP is and has been doing."
University of Notre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead, a bioethicist, had a contrasting view.
"Planned Parenthood's decision is clearly an effort at damage control — to preserve its carefully cultivated (and ferociously defended) image as merely a women's health care organization," said by email. "Nothing Planned Parenthood has done today will change its role as the world's leading abortion provider."
Early reaction to the announcement divided along party lines in Congress, where Democrats have depicted the multiple Republican investigations as baseless.
"I am pleased that Planned Parenthood has taken this additional step, removing a distraction, and, in the process, returning focus to the high-quality health care they deliver to millions of Americans," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.
Rep. Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican, said she remained intent on seeking to defund Planned Parenthood.
"It is curious that, while Planned Parenthood officials maintain there has been no wrongdoing, they still find it necessary to change their policy," Black said. "Clearly, this was a decision motivated by optics rather than the organization's conscience."