Planned Parenthood and Incentives
It seems to me that there is some disagreement surrounding the significance of today’s revelations about Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue. I am going to explore this as clinically as I can. Cards on the table: I am male, Catholic, and essentially anti-abortion; I accept that I am never going to have to make this decision myself, which leaves me less qualified to discuss this issue on some level. But I will attempt to analyze this dispassionately, trying to set my personal feelings aside.
Based on what we see in the linked video, It seems quite clear that Planned Parenthood is making some money by selling the body parts of aborted fetuses. Whether this is profit, or goes into someone’s pockets, or helps maintain facilities, it is something that happens, at least sometimes. (We do not know how frequently it happens.)
More obviously, it is also clear that Planned Parenthood is performing abortions, for better or worse. That’s the reality; today’s news changes none of that. Indeed, from one perspective, if a fetus is going to be aborted anyway, why not get some value out of that life? Researchers want specimens to do research, and the alternative, if abortion is legal (which it is), is for researchers not to get their specimens. I suspect this is the underlying worldview in the tweet below:
If you’re pro-choice, I don’t think there’s a very compelling case against this. Who cares? http://t.co/iZWV9XKzyA
— Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt) July 14, 2015
In my estimation, the key revelation here is not about abortions so much as it is about incentives.
Among other services, Planned Parenthood provides counseling to would-be parents about their options with respect to pregnancy; as supporters of abortion rights point out, Planned Parenthood is focused on giving women choices. But if abortionists stand to gain money from the after-effects of an abortion, they are incentivized to encourage abortion. This becomes a secondary benefit to abortion itself for Planned Parenthood, but the additional potential revenue from the biological material skews their incentives in favor of encouraging abortions rather than the alternatives.
More troubling is that if more developed fetal tissue is worth more money on the market, then Planned Parenthood is incentivized to delay abortions. Even if you are pro-choice, surely there is a line somewhere between when the fetus is merely a clump of cells and when the fetus is a living human. (Most pro-lifers believe that the line is at conception.) The further along in the pregnancy a woman gets, the closer we are to that line. Stated differently, even if you believe that there is no distinction between 7 days, 7 weeks, and 7 months, simple intuition should lead us to assume that it is possible that we’re doing something worse by aborting a fetus at 7 months than at 7 weeks. (The alternative–that it is worse to abort at 7 weeks than 7 months–is illogical.) [edited for clarity] Thus, because this is an area of intense ambiguity, if abortion is legal, it seems prudent to err on the side of caution and encourage abortions to be earlier in the term, so that we are less likely to be committing murder.
You may decide that ultimately, ensuring equal rights for women demands that we risk getting this wrong–that we risk sanctioning murder–by drawing the line in the wrong place. That is not my position, but I understand that perspective.
The problem is that if more developed fetal tissue–full organs, like hearts, livers, and lungs–is able to fetch a more substantial price on the research market, then Planned Parenthood’s economic incentives cut against the idea that if a woman must have an abortion, ceteris paribus, she should have it earlier rather than later, to lower the odds of murder and to protect the woman’s health. Under this scenario, it would be better for Planned Parenthood’s bottom line to delay the abortions.
This also offers us a new look at one potential reason why Planned Parenthood lobbies so intensely on behalf of late-term abortions: if late-term abortions are more lucrative, why wouldn’t Planned Parenthood prefer them?
People, always and everywhere, respond to incentives. Even if Planned Parenthood says otherwise, if Planned Parenthood makes more money off of late-term abortions via this secondary market, it is incentivized to encourage more abortions to occur later during the pregnancy. Inadvertently, then, with the encouragement and guidance of Planned Parenthood, mothers could be fostering and developing fetal cells solely for the purposes of research.
This dynamic should, at the very least, raise troubling moral questions.
[update, 7/15/2015, 6:30 AM Pacific Time] Some comments have very fairly pointed out that Planned Parenthood disputes my core assumption–that they were making money off of these transactions, rather than just recouping costs. Rereading my piece, I posited greater certainty than actually exists. If Planned Parenthood’s version is accurate, then my argument about incentives would be invalid. I see these as competing claims, now; it is unclear which side is telling the truth. In the spirit of fairness, I am linking to their statement. I regret the omission from last night, and I appreciate the feedback.
[Readers should also see the author’s follow-up post. — eds.]