Did you know that most hospitals traffic in body parts? Yes, you read that right! Hospitals across the country chop up dead people and are financially compensated for doing so. In an effort to make this practice sound more palatable, you typically hear it referred to as “organ donation.” That’s right, organ donation. What, it sounds different now? That, quite simply, is why it matters that so many news agencies used the “selling baby parts” terminology when writing about the anti-Planned Parenthood videos released this past summer.
There is little difference between what we typically refer to as organ donation and Planned Parenthood’s practice of facilitating fetal tissue donation. In each case, a medical provider allows an individual to opt to be a donor, and is then reimbursed for costs related to the donation. The individual does not receive compensation, and the medical provider is only compensated for costs incurred, and not paid for the organ or tissue itself. And yet, millions of people across the country reacted with horror to the videos released this past summer—videos that didn’t reveal any wrongdoing whatsoever.
All of this came to mind while reading a recent article by Dr. Jen Gunter:
When we speak of organ or tissue donation in children and adults we say just that, kidneys or liver or skin grafts. Even face transplants. We do not call them body parts we use their anatomic terms. When fetal tissue is donated for medical research (much in same way a kidney or a liver is donated) a rational person interested in accuracy would say just that, “fetal tissue” and “donation.” Those with agendas other than accurate reporting and health care use the term baby parts, specifically harvesting baby parts to go for a maximum illusion of morbidity as if the medical care at Planned Parenthood were really a sequel to Robin Cook’s Coma.
She’s right—very very right. Most people would be horrified if you too them that hospitals sell body parts, but that’s just as true as it is to state that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts. We typically use terms like “organs” and “tissue” instead of “body parts,” but said organs and said tissue are indeed body parts. And similarly, while medical providers are not paid for organs or tissue itself, it is standard practice for them to be compensation for the costs involved in removing, storing, or transporting said organs and tissue.
Remember how I’ve said that words matter? Well, this is yet one more place where they matter very much. Anti-abortion activists were able to garner attention and convince the public that Planned Parenthood was committing atrocities through using specific language. Do you think the general public would have been upset if these activists had announced that Planned Parenthood allows women to donate fetal tissue and is compensated for the storage and transportation costs involved? No. But telling people that Planned Parenthood “sells baby parts”? Sometimes the language used makes all the difference.
And as Gunter explains further, this language became a serious problem:
The idea that there was no proof of anything illegal in the videos, they were illegally obtained and highly edited, and that fetal tissue is integral in medical research didn’t matter to those with agendas, be they motivated by anti-choice extremism, page clicks, or press time to pump up their run for President. Slagging on Planned Parenthood lead to press time and attention. The “harvesting baby parts” meme was championed by every GOP candidate, almost every Republican, and many democrats and amplified by the media. The fact that the lies about Planned Parenthood were accompanied by graphic images meant most people looked at an image out of context or worse, an image that wasn’t even from a Planned Parenthood or representative of an abortion, and listened to the shocking headlines and moved on.
The amount of misinformation made getting real information—and communicating that information to others—extremely difficult. As Gunter explains, even media sources that should have known better ran with the “selling baby parts” rhetoric, and it was that phrase that shaped public perception of the controversy.
Even staunch liberal friends of mine whispered things like, “But those videos!” or “So what about all that stuff at Planned Parenthood?” Rational people predisposed to think good of Planned Parenthood were left wondering, so the campaign of misinformation was clearly highly effective. Many readers of this blog and friends thanked me for taking the time to spell it out here in my blog or in person, but given the assault of the headlines it was a bit like shoveling shit at the Aegean stables.
Words matter—a lot. This past summer it was the anti-abortion activists who won the battle of words. By phrasing the issue as “selling baby parts” they were able to make the public incensed about an ordinary medical practice—organ and tissue donation—that virtually everyone is familiar with and virtually no one blinks an eye at. And as Gunter also notes, that rhetoric was enough to call one anti-aboriton activist to murder.
In fact, Gunter argues that media bears some of the responsibility for the Planned Parenthood shooting because so many news sources used the anti-abortion activists’ misleading terminology, especially in their headlines, rather than using more accurate terminology. As she explains:
I managed to write about the deceptive videos without using the term “baby parts” in the headline at least six times (there was a seventh but it appeared on another site and I didn’t write the headline so I can’t take credit), so it can be done.
It’s true that the activists falsely accused Planned Parenthood of receiving compensation for more than just the storage and transportation of donor tissue, but news sources could still have reported on this without using the misleading phrase “selling baby parts.” Instead, they could have reported that Planned Parenthood was accused of “accepting money for fetal tissue donation” or “selling fetal tissue.” Unfortunately, the media’s use of the activists’ sensationalist rhetoric is probably a symptom of the way the media works in our day and age—after all, how many people would read an article about Planned Parenthood accepting money for fetal tissue donation?—and as such, it’s a reminder of the fatal consequences sensationalist journalism can have.
The next time someone tells you that Planned Parenthood “sells” baby parts, shrug and tell them that hospitals “sell” body parts too. I’d love to hear the reaction you get!