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Planned Parenthood’s Organ Harvesting Should Be Outlawed, Says Bioethics Lawyer

John Burger - published on 07/22/15

Dorinda Bordlee on second video and the latest revelations

The pro-life group Center for Medical Progress released a second stealth video Tuesday in which a Planned Parenthood official discussed the sale of fetal organs and tissues. Dorinda Bordlee, vice president and senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, a bioethics law and policy organization that advocates for human rights from beginning to end, said Planned Parenthood is "commodifying" unborn human life and that trafficking in fetal organs and tissues should be outlawed.

Bordlee spoke with Aleteia Tuesday.

What do you find especially troubling about the secretly-filmed videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue and organs?

In addition to laying bare the horror of abortion in general, the videos raise serious questions about how Planned Parenthood is commodifying human babies and using the process of research to incentivize women to have abortions.

But they say the women who sign the consent forms have already made the decision to have an abortion.

With elective abortion, until the woman is actually in the room and the abortion has been completed, she can always change her mind. Many women go into Planned Parenthood clinics wanting information, and they have not made that final abortion decision.  So it seems to be highly unethical for a Planned Parenthood employee to say, “Well, you could do good for science by donating your baby’s body,” because that would induce them to do something they might not otherwise have chosen to do.  There’s just an inherent coercion by presenting a pregnant woman with the option of fetal organ harvesting at all, and that’s why Bioethics Defense Fund president Nikolas Nikas and I believe that the practice of organ harvesting from elective abortion is completely unethical and it should be completely illegal. We’re working on model legislation for the federal government and the states to prohibit this practice completely. 

What’s the history? How long has it been legal?

In the early nineties, people who support legalized abortion pushed through a federal law that permitted research using “human fetal tissue" regardless of whether it was obtained from a miscarriage or an induced elective abortion.  However, there is a companion law that makes it unlawful for any person to “knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration.”  The term “valuable consideration” could be manipulated to hide profits because it is defined as not including “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control or storage of human fetal tissue.”  

These items are all fungible.  Because the law says it is unlawful to profit from the sale of organs, Planned Parenthood’s response was, “Look, we’re not selling the babies’ organs, we’re just setting the price for the use of our facilities, storage time, the time it took us to farm through the parts and decide which ones are usable and which ones are unusable.” It’s really just a shell game and a fiction and it’s not ethical at all. That’s why it needs to be made totally illegal to trade in fetal body parts for any reason, especially when those body parts are coming from an elective abortion.

Regardless of whether Planned Parenthood is found to have received valuable consideration or not, investigators will likely pay close attention to other provisions of those federal laws including the provisions about obtaining informed consent, and the alleged practice of using an alternate procedure of abortion that is more dangerous to the mother in order to keep the fetal organs intact.

Many will object that organ donation can help research.

Of course there’s a big difference between a woman donating her aborted baby’s body parts and a person deciding to donate his own body to science. When we’re dealing in the organ donation industry, usually we’re dealing with people who have terminal illnesses. They may sign something that says “Upon my death I donate my body to science.” That’s allowing the natural dying process to take place, and anticipating that your own organs can be used after natural death.

In this instance, we’re dealing with a healthy mother of a healthy baby, and we’re presenting her with an option to sign a form that says, “If you sign here, we will directly kill your baby and then harvest the organs.” That completely violates every ethical norm when it comes to organ donation. There’s an ethical norm called the dead donor rule. So, for example, if I found out I had terminal cancer, I couldn’t say, “Before my organs get too bad, go ahead and kill me so you can take the organs.” That is highly unethical; it would not be allowed. And yet here we are allowing Planned Parenthood to kill unborn human babies for the purpose of trading on their organs. And they’re trying to make the women who are in desperate situations feel better about abortion by telling them that they’re helping science. That is incentivizing direct killing. It’s completely wrong, it’s immoral, it’s evil, and it should be illegal.

What is the nature of the payments made to the clinics? Is it ethical for them to accept payments if they claim it’s simply to reimburse for operating expenses?

The way the federal law is currently worded, there is a legal structure set up for this trade in human body parts from aborted babies under the guise of “reimbursing reasonable expenses." However, the law does provide several hoops that organ traders would have to jump through. So state and federal investigators should be inquiring into whether Planned Parenthood is engaging in this practice in a way that is not legal.  For example, if Planned Parenthood doctors are changing the way that they manipulate the baby, and changing the way that they terminate the pregnancy and kill the baby in order to make sure that they get the most intact organs possible, that may be a violation of the federal laws. The reason is that a doctor should not put the woman at greater risk of harm by manipulating the child and its position in a way that endangers her health. 

For example, if you have a regular pregnancy that a woman intends to bring to term and her doctor finds out that the baby is breech—the baby’s feet are down toward the cervix instead of head down—then if the doctor decided to do something called "version," where they turn the baby into that head-down position, that would be considered a risky process because it could rupture the uterus.  That is why the doctors often elect to do a Caesarean section in order to deliver the baby—because flipping that baby around endangers the woman’s health by increasing the risks of uterine rupture or tearing of the cervix. There are many known risks that could hurt the woman.

But in the first video the Planned Parenthood doctors seem to be discussing manipulation of the baby inside the woman’s womb in a way that they can make sure they are crushing above and crushing below so that they get the intact organs in the middle.  It may well be a violation of federal law if investigations actually find that this has happened.

That "version" would be dangerous if it were done at full term, but would it still be dangerous if done much earlier, say, at 15 weeks or 18 weeks?

Yes, the increased medical risks are always there. The later the gestational period is, and the bigger the baby is, the riskier it is. A lot of this evidence came out during the partial-birth abortion litigation. My law partner, Nicholas Nikas, and I were directly involved in defending state partial-birth abortion bans. There was medical evidence that explains many of the reasons why partial-birth abortion is so dangerous. Partial birth abortion, also known as “intact D&E," involves flipping the baby from a head first into a feet first position, then pulling the baby out feet first, leaving only the head in. At that point they pith a hole in the spine and suction the brain out of the baby’s skull. Investigators will have to look into the details, but it sounded like Dr. [Deborah] Nucatola [senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood Federation of America] was describing a procedure that seemed very similar to partial birth abortion. So that’s something else that investigators would have to verify, because it would be a separate federal law that is in question.

What happens to these body parts? Who purchases them, and for what reason?

There are apparently brokers, there are middlemen, who actually go in and sometimes send representatives to induce the women to sign the consent form, inducing them into killing their children with the prospect of helping science. Once they get these consent forms and the woman has the abortion procedure, the clinic workers try to ascertain the organs that are usable, or the broker sends someone to find the organs that are usable, and they fill orders from researchers, whether they are at universities or institutions. I have reviewed requisition forms for fetal eyes, fetal hearts, fetal livers, all kinds of organs and tissues.

So that’s one of the biggest questions on whether the law is being broken or not, namely, as to whether there is financial profit. In America, brokers don’t set up shop unless there is a profit to be made, and these videos raise the question of whether brokers are promoting that same profit incentive to Planned Parenthood clinics. The victims are the women who are being manipulated, and the children whose bodies are used for parts. 

What are your thoughts about some of Planned Parenthood’s defense in response to the Center for Medical Progress?

I think that it was remarkable that the only problem that Cecile Richards had was the tone of Dr. Nucatola. In a world where we’re killing millions of unborn children and incentivizing women who will then pay with their own psychological troubles for the rest of their lives, it’s remarkable that she is so insensitive that they admit, “Yeah, we engaged in this process, and we’re just sorry for her tone.” She should be sorry for the women and children whose lives she has destroyed.

Are there important revelations from the second video?

The second video seems to shed more light on the alleged profit incentives of both Planned Parenthood and the fetal organ broker. It’s very helpful to show that that was a negotiation, just like any other contract negotiation. It’s interesting how at the end of the video, the representative of Planned Parenthood agreed on $100 per specimen, unless she found out that other clinics are getting more, in which case she would want more “compensation.”  And of course she ended with the flippant statement that she wants a Lamborghini. That statement is strong evidence that it is about making a profit, and that it’s not about reimbursing expenses. If this were only about reimbursing actual expenses, then why is the Planned Parenthood doctor negotiating a price? If this is about negotiating expenses, she would simply need to say “Look, this is the cost of our expenses, and you will need to reimburse that.”  This seemed to be a negotiation for profit, and that’s why I think the state and federal investigations have strong reasons for going forward.  In the meantime, Bioethics Defense Fund is available to consult with state or federal policy makers who agree that this evil practice should be completely prohibited.

John Burger is Aleteia’s news editor.


Bioethics Defense Fund,, is a public interest legal and educational organization whose mission is to put law in the service of life.  BDF attorney Dorinda Bordlee can be contacted at or 504-231-7234.

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