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Handout/Weigao Group

Dealing in death

Abortion | Venture with Chinese firm raises questions about Minnesota company's core values

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

Medtronic, the world's leading manufacturer of medical technology, issues every new employee a medallion inscribed with the corporate mission that co-founder Earl Bakken hammered out a half-century ago: "Contributing to human welfare by the application of bio-medical engineering to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life."

Now, though, a brewing controversy may test the durability of the Minneapolis-based firm's philosophy when pitted against the benefits of global expansion and politically correct views of abortion.

In December 2007, Medtronic announced a joint venture with Shandong Weigao Group, a leading Chinese medical polymer manufacturer. Medtronic executives felt Weigao's spinal and orthopedic products complemented its own offerings. Also, the deal offered Medtronic a foothold in Asia. "China is key to our global strategy as we continue to expand our geographic footprint," Medtronic president and CEO Bill Hawkins said in a press release.

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Among Medtronic's 36,000 employees, the rank-and-file knew about the Weigao deal. But in January 2009 internal documents circulated at Medtronic revealed a troubling set of products in the Chinese company's line: "Disposable spontaneous imbibition multipurpose induced abortion devices."

Pictured in the Weigao catalog as a kit, the devices include a large syringe, known as a manual vacuum aspirator (MVA), and a cannula, or long tube, with a "whistle cut"-or sharp-edged window-near its tip. The cannula is inserted into the uterus through the cervix. The whistle-cut is used to slice off pieces of the developing fetus. The MVA is used to suction the pieces of the baby from the womb.

Two pro-abortion organizations, Ipas and Marie Stopes, distribute MVAs worldwide and train people in developing countries to use them. Steve Mosher, president of the pro-life Population Research Institute (PRI), said MVAs are sometimes used to clear a woman's uterus of a spontaneous miscarriage: "But in our experience, they are most often used for elective abortions."

That Medtronic would partner with a company that sells MVAs, say some Medtronic employees, flies in the face of its mission statement to protect and extend human life.

"It is the very core of Medtronic," said one of two employees to whom WORLD granted anonymity because they feared being fired for speaking out. "For Medtronic to own or profit from a company that destroys life or makes products that do is inconsistent with our core values. It's almost as if we are talking out of both sides of our mouths."

Another employee said Medtronic has long been a principled company, and CEO Bill Hawkins a man of integrity. That is precisely why the Weigao abortion devices "are so inconsistent with the history and culture of the company," the worker said. "They destroy life and do not heal it."

Medtronic is home to one of the largest Christian Employee Resource Groups among Fortune 500 companies. In January, pro-life Christians in the firm began to communicate their concerns to one another about the Weigao devices. But they have not approached management, fearing ostracism or the loss of their jobs. Although Medtronic espouses a commitment to "diversity," one employee said, in large corporations Bible-based views often seem to fall out of bounds.

When asked to comment on its employees' concerns, Medtronic issued a prepared statement: "Medtronic has made an investment in Shandong Weigao Group because the company offers spinal and orthopedic products which help fulfill our strategic objectives. . . . This joint venture allows us to reach patients in China who otherwise may not have access to our products and therapies. Medtronic does not make, promote or sell abortion-related products."

But under the terms of the joint venture, Medtronic acquired a 15 percent interest in Weigao and also obtained the right to appoint two directors to Weigao's board. That means Medtronic has "an active voice in the direction" of the Chinese firm, PRI's Mosher believes. He noted that Weigao's home country has a strict one-child policy that results in an average of 10 million abortions per year. Some of those involve coercion.

"Medtronic clearly knows abortion is a highly controversial issue in the United States," Mosher said. "Most medical technology companies would keep their distance from it. The fact that their Chinese partner has dragged Medtronic willy-nilly into this does not give the company an excuse to close their eyes and ears to the problem."

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