Carly Fiorina’s Planned Parenthood Attacks Are a Threat to Science

The GOP candidate and would-be tech banner carrier's anti-abortion campaign is less ideological than it is ill informed.

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Planned Parenthood has found an intractable opponent in Carly Fiorina, the Republican presidential candidate who’s been most vocal about defunding the women’s health organization. Her repeated claims that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for profit have been refuted numerous times by multiple sources inside and outside the organization, but they remain repeated. Fiorina apparently misunderstands research on multiple levels.

In the first, much-watched Republican debate, Fiorina painted an unjustly cold-hearted portrait of fetal tissue researchers during the second GOP debate, making up a scene from the now-infamous Planned Parenthood sting videos out of whole cloth. Her fever dream involved a fully-formed, kicking fetus being kept alive in order to “harvest its brain.” In fact, she was describing a description of a non-Planned Parenthood clinic performing a procedure she clearly didn’t understand.

To give Fiorina some credit, she likely meant the description to be illustrative, but clinical situations don’t lend themselves to the illustrative. Clinical situations lend themselves toward process and repeatability. Researchers are animals of habit, which means that misrepresenting a moment of their work misrepresents their work as a whole. And it’s possible the description was a genuine mistake stemming from a genuine misunderstanding. Well, it was possible. In the weeks since that original sin, Fiorina’s only doubled down, accusing Planned Parenthood of attempting to turn a profit on fetal tissue. That’s a lie, pure and simple, and a vivid lie about science, which makes matters worse.

What Fiorina’s supporters fail to realize is that fetal tissue research has been integral to the advancement of science for over 50 years. The development of the polio vaccine, originally cultured in fetal kidney cells in the 50s, wouldn’t have been possible without it. Today, fetal cells are crucial to the study of disease origins and the development of treatments and vaccines for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, and viral and bacterial infections. This year, the U.S. National Institutes of Health spent roughly $76 million for fetal tissue research. The fast-growing, highly adaptable, rejection-resistant cells have been sourced legally from agencies like Planned Parenthood, which donates tissue with consent and only collects money to cover the costs of storage and transportation. But, for Fiorina, the goal is to defund abortion. Fetal tissue research is an incidental casualty that has just happened to save the lives of many thousands of Americans.

The debate over the ethics of fetal tissue research can’t be resolved by yelling “Science!” It is uncomfortable to talk about aborted fetuses as “surplus” or “leftover” human tissue, just as it is unsettling to accept that abortion clinics are a very obvious source of fetal cells. But a clear distinction must be made between taking cells from fetuses that have already been aborted and aborting fetuses for the sake of research. There is not reason to believe that the latter does happen, despite Fiorina’s implications. The American Medical Association guidelines, which require a patient to make the decision to terminate her pregnancy before even entering a discussion about tissue, codify an approach that doctors seem to follow. Again, proving a negative is hard, but that doesn’t mean that villainy is afoot.

All that said, some researchers side with Fiorina. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Kathleen Schmainda, a professor of radiology and biophysics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, put it this way: “You’re basically taking the life of one member of human society to use for the life of another.” This argument is insanely oversimplified — no lives are being taken here, even if millions of lives could potentially benefit from the research. But Dr. Schmainda deserves respect and the balancing act she proposes is worth considering. It’s extreme and frightening, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth considering as a thought exercise — if nothing more.

Schmainda is one of a handful of scientists that have supported a bill, proposed to the Wisconsin legislature in August, criminalizing the use of abortion-derived fetal tissue in research altogether. In light of the Planned Parenthood videos and Fiorina’s campaign, similar bills have been proposed in Illinois and California. Restrictions on fetal cell donation already exist in Ohio and North and South Dakota.

It doesn’t really matter whether the cells can be replaced. Whether or not the research is crucial to scientific advancement is beside the point. Fiorina’s ultimate goal is to choke off funding to the nationwide abortion machine at all costs, even if that means seeding widespread fear and mistrust in the scientific institutions responsible for American public health. Unfortunately, she’s been successful enough that state-wide fetal tissue bans might become a very real, science-killing thing in the coming months.

The worst part about Fiorina’s crusade is that her fearmongering is straight-up based on lies, yet her supporters lap it up because it’s what they want to hear. Her strategy of repeating lies until they’re good as true might seem to garner support for the Carly for America PAC, but it’s not helping anyone in the long run. Abortions are still going to take place. Since they won’t be donated to the scientists who need them, fetuses will simply end up in the trash. Tell us, Carly, is that really the better alternative?

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