Abby Johnson wasn’t horrified by last week’s undercover video showing a Planned Parenthood doctor describing over lunch and wine how to “crush” a fetus during an abortion to preserve the organs because she’s been there.
In her previous role as clinic director for a Planned Parenthood facility in East Texas, Ms. Johnson said part of her job was to sift through the aborted fetal tissue and organs, pack them in a container with dry ice, check the consent form and “ship them off.”
Like Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood senior director of medical services, Ms. Johnson said she and her colleagues would talk about their work, even indulge in “gallows humor” as they wound down after hours over margaritas and chips.
“I lived that life,” said Ms. Johnson in an interview. “I worked at Planned Parenthood for eight years at an abortion facility, and I ran the facility, and that was very common for us after a long day of work — after a long day of performing abortions, the staff going out to eat, having drinks, talking about the day.”
That’s no longer her life. Ms. Johnson, 35, resigned in 2009 after witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion. Three years ago, she founded And Then There Were None, dedicated to helping abortion clinic employees leave the business by providing counseling, recruiting services, legal fees, even a month’s worth of replacement salary.
The video prompted her to write an open letter last week to Dr. Nucatola offering assistance and saying, “I get how something grotesque to others can seem ordinary.”
The video, released Tuesday by the pro-life Center for Medical Progress, shows Dr. Nucatola discussing how much fetal organs are worth, raising alarm over whether the organization is profiting from the sale of donated fetal tissue in violation of federal law.
House and Senate Republicans have called for a congressional investigation, while governors or attorneys general in at least three states — Georgia, Indiana and Ohio — launched probes into state abortion clinics to determine if fetal organs and tissue are being sold for profit.
Planned Parenthood insists that it only charges for costs arising from the transfer of lawfully donated tissue to medical research centers, which is legal.
Two Democrats — House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. and Rep. Steve Cohen — released a statement saying that the video “does not demonstrate that Planned Parenthood is ‘selling’ fetal tissue.”
“In fact, many portions of the full video — edited out of the nine-minute version that House Republicans have circulated — directly contradict the allegation that Planned Parenthood has violated federal law,” the joint statement said.
Based on her experience, Ms. Johnson says she saw nothing in the video to indicate that Planned Parenthood is breaking the law. At the same time, she said the video exposes a loophole that gives clinics and processing companies enormous latitude in setting reimbursement charges for fetal hearts, lungs and other organs.
“The law currently states that there can be moneys exchanged as long as they fit under certain categories like preservation, collection, storage, transport, etc.,” Ms. Johnson said. “And the law says there is not a maximum amount that can be charged or a minimum amount but that costs cannot be prohibitive. And that’s very subjective.”
(Corrected paragraph:)Ms. Johnson does not support the use of fetal-tissue for research.
“They [clinics] could say, ‘Well, it’s more difficult for me to harvest a brain than it is for me to harvest a kidney, so that collection fee is going to be $1,000 for a brain, whereas it’s only going to be $400 for a kidney,’” Ms. Johnson said. “And the problem is that it’s so subjective, the amount of money that can be charged. That’s really where we need reform.”
Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Department of Population Health, also raised the issue of high transfer costs, telling Reuters that only a few companies collect the fetal tissue and that “they charge a lot for it.”
“I’m not sure people who donate it realize that,” Mr. Caplan added.
During her tenure at the Planned Parenthood clinic, Ms. Johnson said most women would agree to donate fetal tissue and/or organs “because we made it seem like that, by donating, they were helping others.”
The National Institutes of Health spent $76 million last year funding grants for research using fetal tissue aimed at finding cures for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
In a statement, the NIH said such biomedical research is conducted “under the general legal authorities to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”
In her experience, Ms. Johnson said the older the gestational age of the fetus, the easier it is to pick out organs.
“At my affiliate, we did abortions at the time up until 16 weeks. You can begin harvesting fetal tissue at approximately eight weeks,” Ms. Johnson said. “Organs are present earlier, but you can’t really decipher them until about 12 weeks. That’s not all of the organs, but some of the larger ones, you can pick those out and say, ‘OK, this is a liver.’ And that’s usually around 12 weeks.”
Ms. Johnson’s story is well known in pro-life circles. She had received a regional Employee of the Year award from Planned Parenthood shortly before she quit in 2009 after a doctor showed her an abortion procedure on an ultrasound.
“I was shocked at what I saw,” she said. “I had been told by Planned Parenthood that the unborn had no sensory development until 28 weeks gestation, and so to see a 13-week fetus trying to actively move away from the abortion instrument during that procedure was very shocking.
“It really caused me to [ask], ‘What else have I been misled about through this organization?’” said Ms. Johnson, who recounts her experience in “Unplanned” (Tyndale Momentum), which was released in paperback in December.
She has since tangled with pro-choice advocates about the details of her story, such as the date and location of the ultrasound and her motivation for leaving the clinic.
Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of reproductive health services, including abortions, reported revenue of $1.2 billion in 2012-13. Nearly half of that, or $540 billion, came from “government health services grants and reimbursements.”
Dr. Nucatola has come under fire for her comments in the undercover video — even Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards apologized last week for the doctor’s “tone and statements.”
But Ms. Johnson was not among those critics.
“To be perfectly honest, I was disgusted at many of the comments that I saw from people claiming to be pro-life, and the way that they were talking about Dr. Nucatola,” Ms. Johnson said.