You learn a lot about America when you research abortion. The procedure is legal but it is seen as a sacred right by a large number of very vocal people and so it is surrounded by rules but very often goes virtually unregulated. And it is amazing what some very educated, very liberal people will do when they know people are not looking.
Researching abortion for my new film "Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer," I've learned that you can make a living - a "heathy" living selling the body parts of aborted babies. The trade was first revealed in 2015 by David Daleiden’s undercover recordings of Planned Parenthood executives.
Daleiden, of the Center For Medical Progress, even recorded one executive seeming to joke about buying a Lamborghini from the proceeds. The tapes created a stir, but media interest faded, particularly after Planned Parenthood commissioned an “independent” analysis by an outside company that called into question the accuracy and reliability of Daleiden’s dossier. The firm that discredited his findings was, at the time, a little-known company called Fusion GPS – who have since proven to have experience creating dossiers of their own of dubious credibility.
Undeterred by the conclusions of Fusion GPS’s investigation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee immediately started their own. The committees were able to subpoena witnesses, records and invoices. The findings of both committees, released separately over the Christmas and new year period in 2016, went mostly unreported, but they uncovered a well-run, mature and massively profitable business selling almost every part of babies to elite hospitals and research institutions across the U.S.
The House investigation found one company that paid Planned Parenthood $55 for a fetus’s brain, then sold it on to a researcher for over $3,000 – that’s a 2,800% profit. The investigators pointed out that this was not an unusual transaction in the baby business.
The Senate investigation published invoices that showed another company buying an intact fetus from Planned Parenthood for $60. The Senate report outlined how the company then broke the fetus up for parts and “sold its brain to one customer for $325, both of its eyes for $325 each to a second customer, a portion of its liver for $325 to a third customer, its thymus for $325 and another portion of liver to a fourth customer, and its lung for $325 to a fifth customer.”
That one aborted baby brought the company $2,275 for a $60 purchase. Then they added fees for “disease screening” and shipping. The product being sold may have been unusual, but some of Planned Parenthood’s shady financial practices were typical of any dodgy business. For example, they “forgot” to pay sales tax on their sales, and the investigating committees found broker companies double-dipping on expenses.
The Senate’s 2016 report that lawyers for the broker Advanced Bioscience Resources, one of many in the field, estimated the company made up to $666,000 per year from tissue sales, about half the company’s income. Last month, the Trump administration canceled government research contracts with the company.
The committee reports are lengthy but contain some chilling details. The invoices from the trade are stunningly bland yet incredibly appalling. They included the standard terms and conditions paragraph – must be paid within 30 days, failure to pay will result in 1.5% interest being charged, etc., etc. All very boring until you see what is being traded.
One company sold the skin of a Down Syndrome baby for $325 (readers interested in equality might like to know that a Down Syndrome child’s skin costs the same as a non-Down baby). You can also buy the eyes, legs, arms, liver, thymus, lungs, and brains – even the skeletal remains – of a baby. An abortion might end an unwanted pregnancy, but the baby’s body is very much wanted after the procedure.
And the parts are all listed on the invoices from the committee investigations, amazing documents that pass through the research departments and accounts payables departments of world-famous institutions, whose staffs apparently never once raised doubts about the trade. From Johns Hopkins to Harvard, George Washington University to Yale – they all ordered baby parts and they all paid huge prices, though in most contexts it would be illegal to profit from the sale of human body parts.
No one shouted 'stop' over this trade, though. No one called their ethics department or the police. They just kept paying these banal invoices.
Selling body parts or organs for profit is normally illegal, but it’s ambiguous how such laws apply to fetal tissue. The House of Representatives report urged 15 criminal and regulatory referrals in various states over fetal tissue sales. The Senate focused on the need for further investigation specifically of Planned Parenthood-affiliated tissue brokers Advanced Bioscience Resources, Novogenix, and StemExpress.
However, anyone who thinks that the recent appointment of another conservative to the Supreme Court or even the overturning of Roe v. Wade would mean an end to all abortion in America should pay attention to how states have reacted to the committees’ abortion-related recommendations. Some 20 state-level investigations have ended with virtually no prosecutions aside from incidental tax and record-keeping violations. It seems the whole trade may be too ambiguous and bureaucratic, or perhaps political, to make enforcement straightforward.
Earlier this year, for instance, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas’s office, which appeared to be performing one of the more aggressive investigations into fetal tissue sales, concluded the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center violated no state law.
The state has a law that makes it a felony for a person to purchase or sell an organ or tissue for “valuable consideration,” but so long as payments are considered roughly break-even compensation for the costs of delivering tissue, states have found little reason for further investigation – even under recurring pressure from Republicans at the federal level. The New Mexico attorney general’s office added of the relationship between University of Mexico and abortion clinics, “such relationships between healthcare providers and research institutions appear to be common in the medical field.”
Too brazenly marketing the products can result in prosecution, though, and two California businesses that advertised and offered special sales and discounts – DaVinci Biosciences and affiliated DV Biologics – were shut down in 2017. As part of a settlement they were forced by the district attorney of conservative leaning Orange County to pay $7.8 million in fines. Those companies’ ads were seen around the world and offered items such as fetal brain tissue for over $1,000 per sample. They made little pretense of using the money simply to compensate donors or allay the costs of abortion procedures, the sort of misstep that could lead to future prosecutions of other brokers, unless they simply learn from DaVinci’s mistakes and emphasize “compensation” for procedures instead of profit from commodities.
In America these days, it seems you can traffic in baby parts. Just don’t advertise too aggressively.
Phelim McAleer is a journalist and film producer. His film Gosnell: The Trial Of America's Biggest Serial Killer, is a true crime drama about the investigation and political drama surrounding the prosecution of an abortion doctor who is serving three life sentences for killing several babies and patients at his Philadelphia clinic. It is currently a national release: www.