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Covert video targets Planned Parenthood fetal-parts policy

Last Updated Jul 15, 2015 11:02 AM EDT

NEW YORK -- Anti-abortion activists on Tuesday released an undercover video showing a senior Planned Parenthood official discussing the disposition of parts from aborted fetuses.

The activists contended the video reveals illegalities, but Planned Parenthood said the activity in question was the legal, not-for-profit donation of fetal tissue to research firms.

The video was made covertly last year, depicting a lunchtime conversation between Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, and anti-abortion activists posing as potential buyers for a human biologics company.

Nucatola is heard in the video referring to fetal hearts, lungs and livers and to efforts to retrieve these organs intact rather than crush them during an abortion procedure.

Commercial sale of human fetal tissue is illegal under federal law, but non-commercial tissue donation is allowed if the woman undergoing an abortion gives her consent.

In the video, Nucatola is heard giving a range of monetary estimates. According to Planned Parenthood, which has national offices in New York and Washington, D.C., the doctor "was speculating on the range of reimbursement that affiliates can receive after patients state they wish to donate tissue after a procedure."

"At several of our health centers, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does - with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards," Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferrero said.

Ferrero said there's no financial benefit for tissue donation for 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," he said in a statement.

That point also is conveyed by Nucatola, who says in the video, "This is not something with any revenue stream that affiliates are looking at - this is a way to offer patients the services they want and do good for the medical community."

The video was produced by the Irvine, California-based Center for Medical Progress, which released it in collaboration with several national anti-abortion organizations that called for a congressional investigation.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is among the large field of Republican presidential candidates, directed the state health department to launch an investigation even though Planned Parenthood doesn't perform abortions there.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also ordered an investigation. In a statement Tuesday night, Abbott called the video "unnerving and appalling." He said he has directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to immediately investigate the alleged practice.

That's in addition to a separate investigation ordered by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Both men are Republicans who have participated in efforts to tighten restrictions on access to abortions in Texas.

The founder of the Center for Medical Progress, David Daleiden, previously worked with the anti-abortion group Live Action, which has released several undercover videos aimed at discrediting Planned Parenthood.

In 2011, Live Action sent fake pimps and prostitutes ostensibly involved in an underage sex trafficking ring into Planned Parenthood offices with hidden cameras.

The group then released an edited undercover video that it said exposed Planned Parenthood for "aiding and abetting the sex trafficking of underage girls" and "covering up sex abuse." A Planned Parenthood employee featured in the video was subsequently fired.

Ferrero said the new video "falsely portrays Planned Parenthood's participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research."

"Similar false accusations have been put forth by opponents of abortion services for decades," he said. "These groups have been widely discredited, and their claims fall apart on closer examination, just as they do in this case."

Daleiden said the new video is the first in a planned series that culminates a nearly three-year investigation.

"Planned Parenthood's criminal conspiracy to make money off of aborted baby parts reaches to the very highest levels of their organization," he said. "Elected officials must listen to the public outcry for Planned Parenthood to be held accountable to the law."