Bioethics Blogs

Ethics, Optics, and Medicine as Work: Backstage at Planned Parenthood

Two days after a hidden camera video of Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services was released, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards, apologized for Dr. Deborah Nucatola’s tone:

Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide. In the video one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion. This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements.

This was a reasonable corporate response, since Dr. Nucatola’s frank discussion of abortion procedures and medical research shocked even some who support their legality, and ethicists criticized her on this count as well. But I don’t think Dr. Nucatola’s tone and statements fail to reflect compassionate care—what they reflect is a doctor who believed herself to be “backstage.” And contrary to the claims of the video’s originators, what they reveal is not the “selling of baby parts,” but medicine as work.

Dr. Nucatola was videotaped at a lunch meeting with people who she believed provided medical researchers with the tissue they need by collecting it in doctors’ offices. It’s rare for people outside of medicine to hear blunt procedure dialogue from any medical specialty, and seeing that backstage dialogue put in front of an audience and performed while eating in a restaurant is especially jarring. So of course the optics on this are terrible.

But that’s different from the ethics. Discussing work while eating is something overbooked clinicians are forced to do all the time, and sociologists tell us that professionals in many fields use blunt shorthand for efficient conversations when speaking to each other outside of the public eye.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.