Bad Planning

ppIn a bid for ongoing taxpayer support, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards will be appearing before Congress today. It’s reported that as part of her testimony, she will admit that only 1 percent of Planned Parenthood’s affiliates currently harvest fetal tissue, and that even those affiliates charge only modest fees of $60 per tissue specimen.

Which raises the question: Why should we give money to an organization that has access to a valuable resource but can’t be bothered to sell it to the highest bidder?

When your brother-in-law is out of work, you might be inclined to help him out. When your brother-in-law is out of work, deluged with job offers, and refusing even to consider them, you’ll probably be less inclined. Planned Parenthood is that brother-in-law.

This isn’t about your stance on abortion. Whether you’re pro-life, pro-choice, or pro-anything-in-between, surely we can all agree that valuable resources should not be lightly discarded, especially by those who are in the midst of pleading poverty, and doubly especially by those who are in the midst of pleading poverty as a rationale for conscripting other people’s money. This is so whether or not those valuable resources are byproducts of an event that you consider regrettable, or even appalling.

Of course those who recoil from abortion might want to prohibit the sale of fetal tissue in order to limit the incentive to abort. But that’s an argument about what the law should be going forward, not about what Planned Parenthood should be doing today.

Anyway, those who recoil from abortion don’t to need new reasons to oppose funding Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, those who don’t recoil from abortion — or those who, at least, want abortion to be easily available — can still recoil from funding an organization that throws valuable tissue in the trash. Planned Parenthood has given every one of us a lot to recoil from.

(Related — and highly recommended — reading here.)

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32 Responses to “Bad Planning”


  1. 1 1 Sub Specie Æternitatis
  2. 2 2 Harold

    Without doubt, PP is a political as well as medical organisation. It has to be to survive in this controversial area.

    It may be that if PP sold the tissue they would end up ceasing to exist due to political pressure.

    If all the work offers your brother in law got were from the Mafia, you may still sympathise.

    This is somewhat like arguing that the obsessive hand-washer is not irrational, since they feel worse if they don’t wash their hands, so hand washing is the only rational behaviour. This fails to address the underlying irrationality.

    So PP may be rational to avoid selling the tissue in the irrational world in which it finds itself. Rather than accept this, it would be better to address the underlying irrationality.

    “Conservatives and some Republicans say Planned Parenthood has broken federal laws forbidding sales of fetal tissue for profit.” SoPP cannot be blamed for not selling tissue that is illegal to sell. We need to look at the underlying irrationality – in this case the laws.

  3. 3 3 RPLong

    That strategy would only last long enough for Planned Parenthood’s customers to figure out that they don’t need a middle-man.

  4. 4 4 nobody.really

    Ha — upon reading this post, I had a similar reaction as Sub Specie Æternitatis: How does this situation compare with the practice of rejecting (allegedly) sound data derived via unethical means?

    This is an example of a more general phenomenon. Consider, the medical experiments performed on concentration camp inmates. Now, most concentration camp doctors were just crackpots whose experiments served no purpose except to satisfy the experimenter’s sadism. But some were perfectly intelligent, if evil, doctors and some of their results were valuable (like excellent anatomical charts) or even life-saving (like the data on survival in extremely cold water). But if one points out this obvious fact, one will immediately stand accused of being an advocate of genocide or, at least, medical experimentation on unwilling subjects, even though one is neither.

  5. 5 5 Harold

    #4 Or information extracted under torture by third parties?

    If more value can be extracted from something more of it is likely to occur. If you can use information from torture, you are more likely to send your prisoners to torturers. If you can sell fetal tissue you are more likely to generate fetal tissue through abortion.

    Of course, from an economic perspective, if you can extract more value then more of it ought to happen.

    My feeling is to agree that you should not torture. Not that I think torture is always wrong, but on balance I think a moratorium is more likely to lead to to a better outcome.

    So whilst I recognise the cost / benefit equation for torture, I think we are very bad at evaluating the costs and the benefits. This is largely because the benefits all go to some and the costs are all borne by another. In the absence of regulation, I think there will be too much torture, because those doing it see the benfits but not the costs. In addition, we are very bad at evaluating the benefits anyway.

    Those that are against abortion will feel similarly, I presume. Whilst there are costs and benefits, we as a society are obviously already evaluating the costs and benefits wrongly in order for abortion to occur at all. The cost is borne by the fetus, and the bentfit by the mother. If we throw in medical gains as well, we provide benefits to yet others that do not bear the costs, so we will get the balance even more wrong.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg

    Sub Specie Aeternitatis (#1): I’d read your post when it first went up and it confirmed my ongoing view that you’ve got pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet. Then I somehow managed to forget about it entirely when I was writing this post. I ought to have linked to it. Going back to fix that now.

  7. 7 7 Sub Specie Æternitatis

    You are too kind, Prof. Landsburg!

    My blog–covering whatever the author finds interesting and perhaps not universally known at the moment–probably is only of interest to a specialized audience. But that specialized audience may have a substantial overlap with the readers and commenters here.

    So any visitors disappointed not to find any new content here are cordially invited to visit http://specieaeternitatis.blogspot.com/ . They may find it an acceptable substitute until there is something new on The Big Questions. If you find whatever the current top post at SSA to be boring or offensive, skip around; you may very well find something else there more to your liking.

  8. 8 8 nobody.really

    Sub Specie Aeternitatis (#1): I’d read your post when it first went up and it confirmed my ongoing view that you’ve got pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.

    My blog–covering whatever the author finds interesting and perhaps not universally known at the moment–probably is only of interest to a specialized audience.

    You can say that again. Thanks for the links. Cuz if the blog’s readership has to know how to spell in Latin, the author is pretty much talking to himself, Landsburg, and the pope. And I’m iffy about the pope. Since I screw up typing “thebigquestions” roughly 1/3 of the time, I haven’t made a habit of reading SSA’s blog.

    How does this situation compare with the practice of rejecting (allegedly) sound data derived via unethical means?

    Or information extracted under torture by third parties?

    If more value can be extracted from something more of it is likely to occur.

    This goes to the heart of Landburg’s and Sub Specie Æternitatis’s point: People can be expected to respond to the incentives they face – but not to the incentives faced by others.

    So yes, a social choice to forbid society from benefiting from the torture society sanctions would do much to reduce society’s incentive to sanction torture (just like the social choice to exclude from evidence anything discovered via an illegal search virtually eliminates the incentive for police to conduct illegal searches).

    In contrast, can you imagine how the actions of even a single Nazi experimenter would have been altered if he had anticipated that the decedents of Allied forces would refrain from using the evidence he was gathering? Can you imagine how the actions of even a single woman seeking an abortion would be altered if she knew that people would refrain from using fetal tissue for scientific research?

    If not, they our social choice to forego the benefits we might derive from these actions — even if wrongful actions – creates no useful incentives. It simply becomes a kind of ritual sacrifice to affirm our own righteousness.

  9. 9 9 Sub Specie Æternitatis

    @nobody.really I apologize for the language on the blog. I promise that once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the hapax legomenon game words, at least a solid 50% of the content is and will always be in English!

  10. 10 10 Bennett Haselton

    What Harold #2 said (at the end). Selling fetal tissue for profit is already illegal:

    http://m.snopes.com/fetal-tissue-sales/

    You are only allowed to be reimbursed for expenses incurred.

    Doesn’t that negate the whole argument, or am I missing something?

  11. 11 11 Brian

    “Can you imagine how the actions of even a single woman seeking an abortion would be altered if she knew that people would refrain from using fetal tissue for scientific research? ”

    nobody.really (#8),

    If the question is asked slightly differently, one can see how it might make a difference. “Can you imagine the choice would be altered if she knew people would be using the fetal tissue to improve people’s health?” The answer to that question seems to be “very probably.”

    Imagine a scenario where a woman comes into PP contemplating an abortion but unsure and perhaps even leaning slightly against. Maybe she’s there because her parents or boyfriend insisted. She says “I don’t think I really want to do this.” PP responds “Well, that’s up to you, though your parents probably have your best interests at heart. Oh, and if you’re bothered by the thought of abortion, you can choose to donate the fetal tissue to medical research. Wouldn’t you like to help improve someone’s life?”

    It’s hard to see how an undecided young woman wouldn’t be influenced by such a sales pitch.

  12. 12 12 Brian

    “Whilst there are costs and benefits, we as a society are obviously already evaluating the costs and benefits wrongly in order for abortion to occur at all. The cost is borne by the fetus, and the bentfit by the mother.”

    Harold (#5),

    Yes, we are getting the costs/benefits wrong, but it’s not because the mother is getting a net benefit (from any rational perspective) and the fetus the cost. In fact, the mother is costing herself substantially.

    This can be seen from other choices. Most women, even those who have abortions, eventually have children. That implies that having and raising a child provides a net benefit. Considering that the cost of raising a child is substantial, the benefit is likely also substantial. This implies that choosing NOT to have the child brings, on average, huge opportunity costs.

    And even if one were to argue that the timing of having a child is not right (thereby justifying an abortion now), it still follows that the woman is behaving irrationally, because the end result of the abortion is that 1) she’s not pregnant, and 2) she’s poorer and stressed out from the decision. Not getting pregnant in the first place would have achieved 1) without the costs of 2). So getting pregnant already indicates a failure to respond to the obvious incentives at the time.

  13. 13 13 khodge

    The selling of fetus parts, much like the selling of adult body parts, is governed by the morality of lawyers not of economists.

    There is, of course, the morality of abortion but that is not the question of this post.

  14. 14 14 khodge

    nobody.really #8
    Do you really have to type that much? “spec” autofills within 2 sites for me; likewise “bigq” for this site.

  15. 15 15 Roger

    The political argument here is over whether the federal govt should be involved in what Planned Parenthood does. Sure, it probably does make economic sense for PP to sell dead fetal tissue, but the feds do not have to fund it if people find it distasteful.

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    Roger 15
    If this makes economic sense then so does selling Pope tickets. The economic point is the same.

  17. 17 17 Ken B

    Steve is being nicely provocative, but I think he is, probably intentionally, missing why there is outrage. It isn’t just the sale of parts, but the impression that the timing and nature of the abortion is being manipulated because of the desire for particular tissues.

  18. 18 18 Harold

    Nobody.really: “can you imagine how the actions of even a single Nazi experimenter would have been altered if he had anticipated that the decedents of Allied forces would refrain from using the evidence he was gathering?”
    Not in this case. One may argue that the situation was sufficienly unusual that the moral hazard argument does not apply.

    “Can you imagine how the actions of even a single woman seeking an abortion would be altered if she knew that people would refrain from using fetal tissue for scientific research?”

    Well, at the margin yes, as described by Brian. But in a more important way even more so. If the use of tissue for research makes abortion a more socially acceptable course of action. If the sale of tissue makes abortion more accesible (because there are more clinics). Then yes, any individual woman’s choice will be very much affected.

    This is a bit like the different jobs that boys and girls were encouraged to take in an earlier post. The actions we take affect not just the choices people make at the time, but they affect the preferences that form the basis of those choices. Analysis based only on the individual seems to miss this.

    #11. Avoiding pregnancy is clearly a much better choice for all concerned – except those wishing to use fetal tissue (which at some level includes all of us).

    However, given a pregnancy some women find that abortion is better than carrying to term. If you want to pay someone to be a surrogate they will charge something like $35k. This represents one measure of the “cost” to the woman of a pregnancy. An abortion is cheap by comparison. At some point in life a woman may believe this cost is worth it, but not at other times.

    Your point about failure to respond to incentives in a rational way is well made. It is easy to avoid pregnancy – ultimately by abstinence. Even before abotion was available and pregnancy meant ruin for many there were still unwanted pregnancies in abundance. I suggest that we are not always rational – especially when our passions are inflamed – or at best our preferences are not very consistent.

  19. 19 19 Brian

    Harold (#18),

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you said.

    “However, given a pregnancy some women find that abortion is better than carrying to term.”

    Yes, some women BELIEVE that having an abortion at the time is the better option. Whether it actually IS for them is a matter of debate. Again, they may not be responding correctly to the incentives.

    ” If you want to pay someone to be a surrogate they will charge something like $35k. This represents one measure of the “cost” to the woman of a pregnancy. An abortion is cheap by comparison.”

    I agree with this. The only problem is that women having an abortion don’t act as if they’re choosing something of high value (by avoiding carrying the child, which carries a $35K cost). Given the very low cost of abortion relative to the cost they are avoiding, one would expect to abortion to be more prevalent than it is. In particular, we might expect women to have many more multiple abortions than they do. So women are either not responding specifically to the incentive of avoiding a full-term pregnancy, or they are not responding correctly to the relative values of the choices.

  20. 20 20 Harold

    #19. The choices must include avoiding pregnancy. You can 1)avoid pregancy at the moment. 2) get pregnant and have an abortion or 3)get pregnant and carry it to term.

    Assuming you do not want a baby at the moment, then 1 is usually better than 2 or 3. We would ideally have no abortions even if every woman would have an abortion if they got pregnant.

    If you do find yourself pregnant then 2 may or may not be better than 3 depending on your preferences. Ideally, you would have worked that out in advance, so you could decide how important avoiding prgnancy was in the first place. If you decide abortion is no big deal, then perhaps you will not make too much effort to avoid it in the first place.

    This has been a bit of a ramble – I don’t think I have made any particular point.

  21. 21 21 Ken

    “Steve is being nicely provocative, but I think he is, probably intentionally, missing why there is outrage.”

    Of course he is. It’s his schtick. He makes it clear when he says “Whether you’re pro-life, pro-choice, or pro-anything-in-between, surely we can all agree that valuable resources should not be lightly discarded”. Oddly, he thinks NOTHING of throwing away the scarcest of resources: someone’s life. He assumes this to be a given to simply throw it away, even natural.

  22. 22 22 Roger

    This talk of “valuable resource” and “highest bidder” suggests that this is a real market in fetal tissue. I suspect that all the buyers are govt-funded research scientists carrying out govt projects.

    Congress just had hearings, but I did not hear of any tissue buyers arguing that this really was a valuable resource. So maybe it is just another govt boondoggle.

  23. 23 23 Nonsi Las

    So, you’re okay with mechanisms to reduce the incentive to abort (and thereby forgo the financial benefits), so long as those mechanisms don’t include capped financial returns to abortion?

  24. 24 24 iceman

    I think the point was this:
    If it’s illegal, they apparently admit doing it (a little) and not even making much money in the process
    If it’s legal only if they don’t make a profit, how is it worth all the bad publicity?
    If it’s legal but they don’t want to ruffle feathers too much because it might hurt their political image…why do they need taxpayer money again?

    Why doesn’t PP just split into two firewalled entities so they don’t have to rely on the dubious ‘red money / green money’ argument?

    Harold – since you like to point to irrationality / inconsistency, you might appreciate the argument (purportedly backed by some evidence) that legalized abortion leads to *more* births, because the risk of pregnancy is ostensibly reduced, but some women end up deciding to keep the baby.
    Not sure tho why anyone need be “subject to ruin” if adoption is an option?

  25. 25 25 nobody.really

    What’s the policy issue at the heart of this Planned Parenthood debate? Some people allege that Planned Parenthood broke the law, either by altering abortion procedures that put women’s health at risk in order to preserve tissue for harvesting, or by selling such tissue for profit. Landsburg raising the opposite objection, complaining that Planned Parenthood refrains from selling such tissue for profit, and thus absorbs federal support needlessly. But I sense most people who find this problematic object because they find abortion objectionable, and don’t want public funds flowing to an organization that conducts abortions – legalities be damned.

    I argue that the issue is policy bundling — a practice I generally oppose, though I haven’t struck upon a precise formulation of my objection.

    In Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., the US Supreme Ct. struck down a government practice of withholding public health grants from organizations that refuse to make anti-prostitution pledges or that say things inconsistent with this anti-prostitution policy. The Court held that government may bar groups receiving funds from using those funds in ways government disapproves of, but may not threaten to withhold funds to keep recipients from doing things with their own resources that government disapproves of. In my terms, the Court held that the transaction between recipient and government is unbundled from the other things the recipient does.

    I favor regulation of natural monopolies. But if we can unbundle the regulated enterprise into the natural monopoly and the arguably competitive service, we should do so. If a gas utility has a natural monopoly in a given area, arguably government would want to regulate the price of its services – including, for example, the service of shutting off gas when a leak is discovered. But fixing appliances is arguably not a monopoly service. If a gas utility also operates an appliance repair division, government would have no business regulating the price of that service. True, it is foreseeable that utility staff will be at a customer’s premises when a leak is discovered and gas shut off, and that the utility would thereby gain a competitive advantage in offering its appliance repair services. But that advantage is not a result of any market failure; rather, it’s a real advantage that the utility can offer to a customer, so there’s no harm in permitting the utility to exploit that advantage for all it’s worth. That is, the natural monopoly and the appliance repair business should be unbundled.

    The state may have a bona fide interest in developing policies regarding procreation. And child-rearing. And mutual aid pacts. Historically government has combined many of these policies together in a bundle called civil marriage. For some people, opposition to state recognition of same-sex marriage hinged on the idea that the state should not extend to couples the benefits of policies governing child-rearing and mutual aid pacts if those couples are by nature incapable of benefiting from policies governing procreation. I question the merits of keeping these diverse policies bundled together.

    Some people object to publicly-financed school vouchers being used at parochial schools, arguing that this constitutes state subsidization of religion. I argue that 1) the state has an interest in educating its citizens, 2) the state is entitled to solicit and purchase education services from private parties, and 3) the state may deputize parents to act as purchasing agents for those services (provided this policy is not a pretext for subsidizing religion). It matters not what the purveyor of a good or service does with the proceeds of a sale to government. An arm’s-length transaction is unbundled from what vendors do with the proceeds of the transaction.

    Similarly, some people object that Planned Parenthood receives payments for providing family planning services/contraception/heath care to Medicare/Medicaid patients. They argue that this constitutes state subsidization of abortion. I argue that 1) the state has an interest in ensuring that citizens have access to these services, 2) the state is entitled to solicit and purchase these services from private parties, and 3) the state may deputize patients to act as purchasing agents for those services (provided this policy is not a pretext for subsidizing abortion). It matters not what the purveyor of a good or service does with the proceeds of a sale. An arm’s-length transaction is unbundled from what vendors do with the proceeds of the transaction.

  26. 26 26 nivedita

    “Of course those who recoil from abortion might want to prohibit the sale of fetal tissue in order to limit the incentive to abort. But that’s an argument about what the law should be going forward, not about what Planned Parenthood should be doing today.”

    Federal law as it stands already prohibits the sale of fetal tissue, as others have pointed out. Perhaps you would like to revise your post in light of this, since as it stands it does not make any sense.

  27. 27 27 Harold

    #24. The “subject to ruin” is a reference to the past, where servant girls may have been dismissed without reference if they were pregnant, or packed off to dubious laundry institutions. Pregnancy still happened. Not so much the case today, I hope.

    On the increase in number of births. A study found that adoption decreased when abortion was legalised. They concluded “These findings support previous studies’ conclusions that abortion legalization led to a reduction in the number of “unwanted” children; such a reduction may have improved average infant health and children’s living conditions.”
    https://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3402502.html
    If it increases the number of births, but those births have become “wanted”, I guess that is OK.

    Nobody.really. You clause 3: “provided this policy is not a pretext for subsidizing religion / abortion” seem to require mind reading.
    How can we tell?

  28. 28 28 Harold

    ” Not so much the case today, I hope.”

    Just to make clear, I have no objection to pregnancy itself. I meant the mis-treatment of pregnant women.

  29. 29 29 nobody.really

    Nobody.really [@25,] Your clause 3: “provided this policy is not a pretext for subsidizing religion / abortion” seem to require mind reading.

    How can we tell?

    Yup, that’s a complication. Conceptually we could ask a judge’s opinion.

    That is, a person who thinks that a policy was merely a pretext for a wrongful subsidy of religion could sue for violation of the 1st Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion (the Establishment Clause). If a court found that the complainant had standing, then the court could compel government to articulate a basis for its policy – and if the government could not bear its burden of articulating how the policy is narrowly tailored to meet a bona fide governmental purpose, the court could find that the policy was a mere pretext for wrongful conduct.

    So, would a random Joe get standing to sue? That’s what seems to have happened in the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), wherein some random taxpayers successfully challenged a state policy subsidizing parochial schools.

    That case established the “Lemon Test” for determining when a government policy violates the Establishment Clause. Among other things, this test bars “excessive governmental entanglement” with religious affairs. In effect, this test permits the court to discriminate against religious matters. Using that test, a court might find that government may subsidize gym memberships — except memberships to the YMCA. Because the Young Men’s Christian Association has some vague Christian mission, subsidizing memberships to that organization might constitute undue entanglement.

    Since 1971 the nation has grown more tolerant/enthusiastic about government entanglement with religion. I question whether we’d get the same result today. Moreover, I’m iffy about the merits of a policy providing for discrimination on the basis of religion. But in the absence of this default presumption against providing funding to religions things, we end up with a default presumption allowing it. So pick your poison.

    Maybe more than you wanted to know….

  30. 30 30 Harold

    #29 “Maybe more than you wanted to know….” Certainly not, it is interesting to learn how these things are sorted out in practice.

    “Since 1971 the nation has grown more tolerant/enthusiastic about government entanglement with religion.” The original “Lemon” case was unanimous, the Sante Fe vs Doe in 2000 was 6-3 majority. Different cases of course. The latter case was about whether prayers could be given over the school PA system at football games if the prayer and the pray-er were selected by the students, not the school authorities. The answer was no.

  31. 31 31 iceman

    Harold 27 – I don’t see how the results you reference are consistent with more births.
    Or why a decrease in adoptions suggests better living conditions etc. (those could also be considered ‘wanted’ births in a sense, by people of greater means)
    The issue I was touching on was that some women change their mind after incurring the event for which they thought the risk had decreased

  32. 32 32 Harold

    #31. The study I referenced does not mention number of births. I think it could be consistent with an increase or a decrease in total number of births. They concluded that there were fewer unwanted births. It sounds plausible that there could be more births overall through the mechanism you describe, although I could not find the data you mention. My point is that even if this is the case, then it is not something we should worry about if the above conclusion about increased child welfare is corrrect. It i spossible that their conclusions are not correct.

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