A Philosopher's Blog

Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue I: Selling for Profit?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2015

Thanks to undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group, Planned Parenthood is once again the focus of public and media attention. This situation has brought up many moral issues that are well worth considering.

One matter of concern is the claim that Planned Parenthood has engaged in selling aborted fetuses for profit. The edited videos certainly seem crafted to create the impression that Planned Parenthood was haggling over the payments it would receive for aborted fetuses to be used in research and also considering changing the methods of abortion to ensure higher quality “product.” Since clever editing can make almost anything seem rather bad, it is a good general rule of critical thinking to look beyond such video.

In this case the unedited video is also available, thus allowing people to get the context of the remarks. There is, however, still reasonable general concerns about what happened off camera as well as the impact of crafting and shaping the context of the recorded conversation. That said, even the unedited video does present what could reasonably regarded as moral awfulness. To be specific, there is certainly something horrible in casually discussing fees for human remains over wine (I will discuss the ethics of fetal tissue research later).

The defenders of Planned Parenthood have pointed out that while the organization does receive fees to cover the costs associated with the fetal tissue (or human remains, if one prefers) it does not make a profit from this and it does not sell the tissue. As such, the charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit seems to be false. Interestingly, making a profit off something that is immoral strikes some as morally worse than doing something wrong that fails to make a profit (which is a reversal of the usual notion that making a profit is generally laudable).

It could be replied that this is a matter of mere semantics that misses the real point. The claim that the organization does not make a profit would seem to be a matter of saying that what it receives in income for fetal tissue does not exceed its claimed expenses for this process. What really matters, one might argue, is not whether it is rocking the free market with its tissue sales, but that it is engaged in selling what should not be sold. This leads to the second matter, which is whether or not Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue.

As with the matter of profit, it could be contended that the organization’s claim that it is receiving fees to cover expenses and is not selling fetal tissues is semantic trickery. To use an analogy, a drug dealer might claim that he is not selling drugs. Rather, he is receiving fees to cover his expenses for providing the drugs. To use another analogy, a slaver might claim that she is not selling human beings. Rather, she is receiving fees to cover her transportation and manacle expenses.

This argument has considerable appeal, but can be responded to. One plausible response is that there can be a real moral distinction between covering expenses and selling something. This is similar to the distinction between hiring a person and covering her expenses. To use an example, if I am being paid to move a person, then I have been hired to move her. But, if I help a friend move and she covers the cost of the gas I use in transporting her stuff, I have not been hired. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction here. If I agree to help a friend move and then give her a moving bill covering my expenses and my hourly pay for moving, then I seem to be doing something rather different than if I just asked her to cover the cost of gas.

To use a selling sort of example, if I pick up a pizza for the guys and they pay what the pizza cost me to get (minus my share), then I have not sold them a pizza. They have merely covered the cost of the pizza. If I charge them extra for the pizza (that is, beyond what it cost me), then I would seem to be doing something meaningfully different—I have sold them a pizza.

Returning to the Planned Parenthood situation, a similar argument can be advanced: the organization is not selling the fetal tissue, it is merely having its expenses covered. This does seem to matter morally. I suspect that one worry people have about tissue selling is that the selling would seem to provide an incentive to engage in morally problematic behavior to acquire more tissue to sell. To be specific, if the expense of providing the tissue for research is being covered, then there is no financial incentive to increase the amount of “product” via morally dubious means. After all, if one is merely “breaking even” there is no financial incentive to do more of that. But, if the tissue is being sold, then there would be a financial motive to get more “product” to sell—which would incentivize pushing abortions.

Going with the moving analogy, if I am selling moving services, then I want to sell as much as I can. I might even engage in dubious behavior to get more business.  If I am just getting my gas covered, I have no financial incentive to engage in more moves. In fact, the hassle of moving would give me a disincentive to seek more moving opportunities.

This, obviously enough, might be regarded by some as merely more semantic trickery. Whether it is mere semantics or not does rest on whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between selling something and having the expenses for something covered, which seems to come down to one’s intuitions about the matter. Naturally, intuitions tend to vary greatly based on the specific issue—those who dislike Planned Parenthood will tend to think that there is no distinction in this case. Those same people are quite likely to “see” the distinction as meaningful in cases in which the entity receiving fees is one they like. Obviously, a comparable bias of intuitions applies to supporters of Planned Parenthood.

Even if one agrees that there is a moral distinction between selling and having one’s expenses covered, there are still at least two moral issues remaining. One is whether or not it is morally acceptable to provide fetal tissues for research (whether one is selling them or merely having expenses covered). The second is whether or not it is morally acceptable to engage in fetal tissue research. These issues will be covered in the next essay.


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31 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on July 31, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Mike, at the end of the day PP is receiving money for supplying *human* organs. It may be legal, but the “banality” is quite shocking–is it not?

    With modern technology, babies are viable at 22 weeks. Does this change the morality of aborting a 23 week old infant?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 31, 2015 at 12:34 pm

      There is, as you say, something shocking about supplying human organs for research. But, people thought the same about using cadavers for medical research and training-something that is now recognized as morally acceptable and essential.

      But, I’ll address the ethics of fetal tissue in an upcoming post.

      • TJB said, on July 31, 2015 at 1:09 pm

        There is actually a very important issue that I have yet to see addressed. In one of the videos it is mentioned that the abortion procedures have been adjusted so as not to damage the organs they intend to sell. The question I have is whether these “adjusted” procedures put the patient at higher risk?

        Also, I am curious if the women undergoing the abortions really knew what was going to happen to their aborted babies?

        • magus71 said, on July 31, 2015 at 2:43 pm

          How about birthing all parts of the baby except the head (because then it’s legally a baby, not a fetus), and shooting a steel spear through the base of the skull. Then removing fully the baby? The level of fact avoidance on all of this for decades…more proof of the decline.

        • magus71 said, on July 31, 2015 at 2:46 pm

          We are a truly sick society. Conservatives did not start this. Socialist, atheist, feminists, did. This is one of the biggest crimes in human history. We’ll pay in the end. The madness that allows this will and is infecting many other areas, so that we are disintegrating as a culture.

          • magus71 said, on July 31, 2015 at 2:47 pm

            And every time someone votes Democrat, these babys’ blood is on their hands.

          • ronster12012 said, on August 2, 2015 at 7:35 am


            This is one step away from cannibalism. Actually in one sense it is worse than cannibalism as cannibalism often has some sort of metaphysical aim such as getting the life force of one’s enemies or something.
            This is just about money…. I never thought that I would ever end up justifying cannibalism in any way but here I am saying that real cannibalism is morally preferable to this.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm

              Planned Parenthood asserts that it is not providing the tissue for the money, but donating it for research. So, the better analogy would be to providing cadavers for medical research.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 4, 2015 at 4:01 pm

          From what I have heard from experts discussing the matter, the woman has to consent to the donation. Some women, it has been claimed, want to make the donation. A commonly given reason is that they want to contribute to research that will help babies.

  2. ronster12012 said, on July 31, 2015 at 9:07 am


    What are actual ‘costs’? To cover costs sounds like just a break even situation like helping a friend move. But don’t ‘costs’ depend on what the company accountant says are costs?

    So a non profit with a CEO on 1/2 a mil pa and presumably others on great salaries doesn’t technically make a profit, just that what would be called profits are shared around the staff instead of being paid as dividends.

    Another question is who are the buyers of such fetal tissue? Not the ones that made the video but real biotech users.

    And interestingly, the California govcorp wants to have a go at the group that filmed this expose. Is PP a protected species?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 31, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      I’m not sure of the specific costs, but presumably it would involve such things as preservation, storage and transportation.

      As you note, costs are human constructs-people just make up the prices (and argue over them).

      You do raise a good point. a “non profit” can have incredibly well paid administrators and employees and that money has to come from somewhere. So, PP might not profit from the tissue deals, but the money does go into their money pool. But, like most organizations, they follow the practice of walling budgets. Just as a university might have fat stacks of cash for new buildings and administrative salaries while being “unable” to pay adjuncts, PP divides up its budget-so, for example, federal funds do not go directly to abortion.

  3. TJB said, on July 31, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Mike, in your opinion does a fetus acquire rights gradually as it grows in the womb, or does the fetus go from having zero rights to full rights at the moment of birth?

    • ronster12012 said, on August 2, 2015 at 7:40 am


      That is an excellent question and I am anxiously awaiting an answer. My two cents…..it acquires rights with its development. Many fetuses are spontaneously aborted or miscarried without much ado, certainly no funeral.
      A stillbirth is treated more seriously than a miscarriage, with more emotional involvement from the parents.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 4, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      I’m actually split on the matter. Based on what I know about biology, the fetus develops capacities gradually. It seems intuitively appealing to assign rights based on capacities, so rights would be gradually acquire. In terms of linking rights to capacities, that is a rather stock approach: killing a chicken for dinner is different from killing a human for lunch since humans and chickens differ in capacities.

      But, I am a metaphysical dualist and accept a non-physical mind. When the mind “links up” with the body, then there is a person present. I admit that I have no idea exactly when (or even if) that occurs. If I am right in regards to my dualism, the fetus should get full person rights at that moment.I don’t think zygotes have minds and I think infants do.

      I favor robust sexual education, ready availability of birth control and strong social support for mothers and infants in part because these help reduce the number of abortions.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 1, 2015 at 12:06 am

    “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” ~ Hannah Arendt

    You’re a sophist on this issue Professor…

    …using euphemisms to hide the ugly truth:

    “aborted fetuses” = “murdered babies”

    “fetal tissue” = “baby livers”, “baby hearts”, “baby brains”, etc…

    Philosophers use words to reveal the truth, not to hide it

    • WTP said, on August 1, 2015 at 7:34 am

      Hannah doesn’t know the half of it. Much evil is done by people obsessed with being “good”.

      You’re a sophist on this issue Professor…
      Well at least you’re starting to catch on…

      • ronster12012 said, on August 2, 2015 at 7:44 am


        “Hannah doesn’t know the half of it. Much evil is done by people obsessed with being “good”.”

        The law of unintended consequences never sleeps…

        The war on drugs which sprang from the Abolitionist debacle is a case in point. Failed once so let’s try it again, eh? Now the DEA are teamed up with the Sineloa Cartel FFS…

  5. wtp said, on August 1, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Shamelessly lifted from Ace of Spades:

    Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be brief. The issue here is not whether Planned Parenthood murdered a few babies and then dismembered and sold off their body parts like some sleazy, back-alley chop shop.

    They did.

    But you can’t hold all of Planned Parenthood responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. If you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole abortion industry? And if the whole abortion industry is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our medical institutions in general? I put it to you, Mr. Manchester Union Leader reporter, isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society?

    Well, you can say what you want about me, but I’m not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!

  6. nailheadtom said, on August 1, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    This is just the sort of thing that Oswald Spengler was talking about in his classic and priceless “Decline of the West”. Western civilization is rapidly sliding into the abyss.

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 2, 2015 at 8:16 am

      The elites have lost confidence in our civilization. Part of the problem is that the elites have been indoctrinated rather than educated.

      • WTP said, on August 4, 2015 at 11:30 am

        And who, pray tell, is doing this indoctrination? Who is paying for it? Any thoughts on what we could do about it?

      • ronster12012 said, on August 11, 2015 at 10:47 am


        Yes they have lost confidence in our civilization, which is why they have decided to replace us with more malleable models from south of the border(in your case) Africa and the ME in Europe and Australia’s case.
        Thanks for coming, white people, please leave quietly so as not to disturb the new residents….lol

        • TJB said, on August 11, 2015 at 12:28 pm

          Last night I re-watched “Deathwish” with Charles Bronson. It was better than I remembered, and very timely to remind people that they don’t have to put up with progressive nonsense.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2015 at 5:30 pm

            So, kill today for a better tomorrow?

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 11, 2015 at 5:36 pm

              Nice slogan–I sure you will make good use of it in your “LaBossiere for President” campaign.

              Do you remember the movie? It fits right in with “Dirty Harry.” I had forgotten how pop culture had turned against progressives in the 1970s. It could happen again!

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2015 at 3:29 pm

              How could I forget Death Wish? Bronson once strode the silver screen like a god of death.

              “Kill Today for A Better Tomorrow” is now an official slogan. When I am elected, that will be spray painted on all US killbots. My first executive order will be for forming a killbot army.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 11, 2015 at 5:37 pm

              Hope Lange was looking good, too…

          • ronster12012 said, on August 12, 2015 at 3:57 am


            One of the totally excellent things about The Donster is that he has refused to apologise for anything. As you know, the normal procedure is for a baying mob to harass an ‘offender’ into grovelling apology where said offender tearfully says he was drunk or drugged or possessed by some politically incorrect demon or something or other in some idiotic psychodrama whereupon he is branded for life as a ‘bigot’ or some other nasty name………but is allowed to live……just.

            No, Da Man doesn’t apologise for anything (and nor should he) and more importantly he has given tacit permission to millions of the salvageable (white and usually male,,,,,the females will follow later) that they don’t have to live on their knees. This helps further tip the scales against progressives(in addition to their dying meme).

            For this he deserves the Nobel prize……..no, not just one, cancel all the others and give the lot to him for services to humanity!!!

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 12, 2015 at 7:23 am

              Excellent point. The Donald is teaching us that it is OK to fight back!

            • ronster12012 said, on August 12, 2015 at 7:38 am


              We didn’t lose power in one hit, it was a gradual process of continually giving ground. We take it back one insult(without apology) at a time lol


  7. ronster12012 said, on August 4, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Apropos nothing in particular……..what about the father of the fetus? The co creator of it has absolutely no say whatsoever over whether it lives or dies. He has financial responsibility but no authority. Male privilege or what?

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