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The bizarre new allegations about Planned Parenthood and landfills, explained

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Ohio just became the ninth state to announce that it found no evidence Planned Parenthood makes illegal profits off fetal tissue donation — or "sells baby parts," as a series of anti-abortion videos sensationally put it this summer. Various state and federal investigations still haven't found anything to substantiate those claims.

This latest announcement about Ohio should have been good news for Planned Parenthood. Instead, it's sparked a bizarre new controversy over something just as sensational, and probably just as baseless, as the claims made in the videos.

The upshot is that Ohio's attorney general is trying to stop Planned Parenthood from using its normal methods of disposing of fetal tissue from abortions, and Planned Parenthood is pushing back in court. The organization sued the state of Ohio, and won a preliminary court victory on Monday that will keep the health department from interfering with its operations for now. Meanwhile, Ohio state lawmakers are scrambling to pass new legislation related to the disposal of fetal remains. And reproductive rights advocates say the whole thing is just another manufactured scandal that has no purpose other than to demonize and restrict abortion care.

Ohio's attorney general says Planned Parenthood "steam-cooked" fetuses and put them in "landfills"

When he announced Friday that his investigation found no evidence Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine also announced some brand new claims against Planned Parenthood that seemed to catch the organization completely off guard. He said that the three Planned Parenthoods in Ohio that provide abortions have been improperly disposing of fetuses in landfills alongside other residential and commercial trash. He said the fetuses had been "steam-cooked," and claimed that all of this violates state code that says fetal remains must be disposed of in a "humane manner."

Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio president Stephanie Kight quickly told reporters Friday that these accusations were "inflammatory" and false. "The reality is that we handle medical tissue just like other health care providers do, and we always have," Kight said in a statement. Kight said Ohio Planned Parenthood facilities have been regularly inspected for decades — ever since the Ohio code about "humane disposal" was first enacted in 1974 — and they've never been cited for their fetal tissue disposal procedures until now. Kight said that Planned Parenthood contracts with licensed medical waste disposal companies who follow all state laws, and that if they didn't Planned Parenthood would take "swift action."

DeWine announced he was seeking an injunction to stop Planned Parenthood from using its current disposal practices. Then Planned Parenthood sued Ohio's health department director on Sunday, and won a temporary injunction Monday to keep the status quo of its operations in place until January 11.

Did Planned Parenthood do anything wrong?

It's very unlikely, for several reasons.

For starters, Planned Parenthood has never in 41 years been cited for violating the state's "humane disposal" policy on fetal remains. But more than that, DeWine's press conference made clear that what he colorfully called "steam cooking" is actually standard procedure for processing infectious medical waste, which includes fetal remains and other human tissue, in the state of Ohio. Human tissue is a biohazard, and so it has to be disinfected before it's disposed of — either through incineration, chemical treatment, or autoclaving, which is the procedure DeWine specifically referred to in his press conference and which is also clearly included as a valid method of disinfection in the Ohio code. And once the medical waste is treated, the code says it can be sent to any solid waste facility.

DeWine also made it clear during his press conference that he hadn't bothered to check whether hospitals and other health providers handle their fetal tissue or other medical waste the same way, which would have helped clarify whether what Planned Parenthood did was unusual or out of line. He told reporters that he didn't know what hospitals and other providers did, and that this was outside the narrow scope of his investigation into what Planned Parenthood does with its fetal remains.

DeWine said that some of the information he was presenting came "from Planned Parenthood," but the only specific information he cited that came from them was the names of the medical waste disposal companies. He said that officials from those companies told him about the autoclaving and the landfill. But when asked whether he was going to target the waste disposal companies for these allegedly improper practices, DeWine said the onus was really on Planned Parenthood to make sure its contractors are doing things right.

So to sum up, DeWine says Planned Parenthood behaved improperly because it contracted its medical waste disposal out to medical waste companies, which then followed the procedures for infectious waste disposal that are specifically outlined in state law.

Why is this happening?

Mike DeWine
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine at Friday's press conference.
Source: OhioCapitalBlog

Planned Parenthood argues that DeWine's actions are politically motivated, since he opposes abortion. Indeed, abortion rights supporters in Ohio rarely have anything good to say about Gov. John Kasich's entire administration — they say he has made numerous anti-abortion political appointments, and that his health department director may not even be legally qualified to serve.

"This is an administration that has done everything possible to eliminate access to abortion in Ohio — secretly writing laws, working to close health centers, and even appointing the head of Ohio Right to Life to the state medical board," Kight said in a statement. "We are seriously concerned that this report is not the result of meaningful investigation, but instead yet another attack on women’s access to health care in the state of Ohio intended to end our ability to continue to provide safe, legal abortion."

DeWine obviously finds these disposal procedures unpleasant, and thinks Ohioans will agree with him that they are. But saying that Planned Parenthood disposes of fetal remains in landfills alongside other common trash evokes mental images that simply don't align with reality. DeWine's description sounds more like dead bodies being unceremoniously tossed into a trash heap, not sanitized medical waste or ash that's no longer recognizable as human tissue being safely processed and disposed of. And as OB-GYN Jennifer Conti notes at Slate, fetal tissue from the 89 percent of abortions that happen in the first trimester "looks akin to a heavy period," not something you would bury in a casket.

DeWine argues that sending fetal remains to a landfill doesn't count as the kind of "humane" disposal required in the state code. But "humane" isn't actually defined in the law, so there's nothing to back up his claim legally. DeWine says pending legislation will clarify that definition and require fetal remains to be cremated or buried, but he won't explain why Planned Parenthood's procedures are improper based on current law.

Ohio lawmakers are proposing new legislation related to this issue, but the potential impact is unclear

planned parenthood, pro choice, pro life Oliver Dempsey/Getty News Images

Ohio state lawmakers are working on two new bills. One, drafted over the weekend and likely to move quicker, would require the health department to more specifically define "humane" disposition of fetal remains. The other, which has actually been in the works for a few months, would require fetal remains to be cremated or buried and allow the woman to decide which method to use — regardless of whether she has a miscarriage or an abortion, and whether she is cared for at an abortion clinic or a hospital.

Reproductive rights groups argue that fetal remains laws like the one Ohio is considering are unnecessary, shame women, and may force abortion providers to take on unneeded extra costs — or even to shut down if they're not equipped to dispose of remains in the way that lawmakers demand. It's not at all clear what requiring abortion providers to bury or cremate fetal remains would entail. Would medical incineration count as "cremation," or would it have to be done separately at a funeral home? Would abortion clinics have to renovate their facilities to comply with funeral home standards? Would doctors have to send fetal remains to a proper cemetery, or would there be a new burial ground designated for this purpose? Reporters asked Ohio lawmakers all of these questions, but none of the specifics have been determined yet. Some of them may be spelled out in future rules written by the health department, not legislation.

The push to require fetal remains to be cremated or buried isn't new. Several states have laws on the books about this, and the anti-abortion lobbying group Americans United for Life is pushing new model legislation that would make this requirement. An AUL spokesperson told Vox that Ohio's new bill isn't based on theirs, but that disposing of fetal tissue through burial or cremation is about "treating the unborn with dignity."

"Treating the unborn with dignity" seems to be the motivation of Ohio's anti-abortion lawmakers and officials. But using terms like "steam-cooked" to describe a routine disposal procedure is also reminiscent of the "selling baby parts" rhetoric from the anti-Planned Parenthood videos to describe routine fetal tissue donation. Both use arguably inflammatory rhetoric, the kind that reproductive rights supporters say is partially responsible for anti-abortion violence like the attack in Colorado Springs. And both tactics seem designed to put abortion rights supporters on the defensive and make people on the fence uncomfortable with the often unpleasant medical details of the procedure.