John Boehner is on his way out as House Speaker, having finally gotten his wish: to see the pope on Capitol Hill. He's leaving behind a national Republican Party in tumult, a party beleaguered by its most extreme factions' demands for action not on the economy or immigration, but on abortion.
That's not news, of course. Republicans have long run on talking points about Obamacare this and illegal immigration that, only to get settled on Capitol Hill and spend their time mostly hyperventilating about uteruses and the people who have them. This summer, a new attack against Planned Parenthood whipped up this long-simmering abortion panic into a full-on froth, as heavily edited videos produced by a nascent anti-abortion group began circulating in July.
The videos purport to show Planned Parenthood employees, including some doctors, negotiating big-bucks deals for fetal tissue. The Center for Medical Progress (CMP), which produced the videos without the consent of the people it secretly (and in some cases illegally) filmed, says Planned Parenthood is dedicated to the sale of what it calls "baby parts," and that it is conspiring to coerce people – ignorant, easily duped women who don't know what's best for themselves, mostly – into getting abortions in order to generate profit from those sales.
After months of huffing and puffing from right-wing leaders and anti-abortion pundits, Congress finally held a public hearing that was ostensibly meant to cover Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation practices. Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for hours, patiently rebutting and rebuffing attempts to paint her as a morally abject abortion profiteer. She was yelled at, cut off and derided by lawmakers who relished the opportunity to rail against abortion – red meat for conservative voters in their districts. At one point, Republican Rep. Jim Duncan of Tennessee asked Richards, "Surely you don't expect us to be easier on you because you're a woman?" She endured these discourtesies with a steely resolve.
She shouldn't have had to be there in the first place; nobody should have. But the video campaign against Planned Parenthood has taken root in contemporary conversations about the politics of reproductive health care, and the myth that Planned Parenthood is a baby-killing behemoth persists, despite all evidence to the contrary.
So I'm here to give you the evidence to the contrary.
Maybe you're thinking, "I don't know what's going on with this Planned Parenthood story, but something must be – those videos do sound damning."
That's understandable. So let's do this: I'm going to describe for you, broadly, what the people who made the videos believe, and whom they're associated with, and then I want you to ask yourself if they sound like trustworthy sources.
David Daleiden, the 26-year-old face of CMP – which misrepresented itself as a biomedical charity to the IRS in order to gain nonprofit status – believes in "fetal personhood." That is to say he thinks any pregnancy at any stage deserves to be afforded the same rights as a born human. He wrote his senior thesis on the subject. The upshot of fetal personhood is that abortion at any stage is considered an act of murder, and forms of birth control that prevent implantation are considered abortion – therefore, they're acts of murder too.
Daleiden has worked with Live Action, another anti-abortion operation that tried, unsuccessfully, years ago to use similar undercover video tactics to discredit and take down Planned Parenthood. Live Action's public face is Lila Rose, who believes abortion "doesn't un-rape a woman" – that people who become pregnant as a result of rape shouldn't be allowed to get abortions – and who opposes birth control.
But wait, there's more. There's a guy on CMP's board of directors named Troy Newman, who's best known for his work with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. Operation Rescue harassed Kansas abortion provider George Tiller for years – the group has proudly detailed its campaign against him. The harassment did eventually stop… when a man named Scott Roeder gunned down Tiller, killing the doctor while he was at church.
Police later found the phone number for Operation Rescue's Cheryl Sullenger, who served time in the Eighties for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic, on a note in Roeder's car. Roeder has said that he had been communicating with Sullenger and Newman about "justifiable homicide" against abortion providers before he killed Tiller. (Both of the Operation Rescue leaders denied this after Tiller's murder.)
That sounds more than a little extreme, no? That the more than one million Americans who get abortions each year – around two-thirds of whom are already parents – are murderers? That people who use birth control are murderers? That the murder of abortion providers is justified? Of course it does. Because it is.
But let's go back to the fetal tissue thing. Even if CMP's beliefs about abortion are shocking, maybe Daleiden and crew really are concerned about a secret black market for baby parts. I mean, that sounds awful!
Except for the fact that overwhelming evidence shows there is no secret black market for baby parts. People have definitely looked: So far 10 states have launched investigations, at the behest of anti-abortion legislators and attorneys general, into Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation practices. None so far have found such a black market, and some, like Missouri, have definitively found no evidence whatsoever for one. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal even called for an investigation into Planned Parenthood in his state, despite the fact that no Planned Parenthood provider in Louisiana provides abortions at all.
If any of the videos released by CMP, either in their "full" format (though there is evidence to suggest that even the supposed uncut videos have been edited) or in their shorter versions, showed Planned Parenthood employees engaging in illegal activity, there'd be no need for legislative showmanship in the form of sham hearings like the one that took place last week. Instead, there'd be real – and real swift – investigations conducted by federal officials whose job it is to ensure compliance with America's tissue donation regulations, and consequences for violations of those regulations. There have been none.
And indeed, if CMP and the anti-abortion lawmakers who appear to have gotten a sneak preview of the videos months ago are truly worried about the illegal sale of body parts from viable human babies, they would do well to widen the scope of their investigation to include the research entities, including public universities, who are signing the checks for these so-called "baby parts." (By the way, "baby parts" is not a medical term that any reputable doctor would use professionally. Anne Geddes takes pictures of baby parts; doctors handle fetal tissue and products of conception.)
Strangely, CMP and anti-abortion lawmakers seem concerned not at all with the fact that, say, the University of Texas Medical Branch has partnered in the past with Planned Parenthood in Houston on a miscarriage study involving fetal tissue. Instead, they're singularly focused on Planned Parenthood because it is an abortion provider, and not because a handful of its hundreds of clinics participate in fetal tissue donation programs.
The truth is that medical research, including research using fetal tissue donation, is an integral part of keeping humans happy, healthy and alive. Research using fetal tissue helped create the polio vaccine. Doctors and biologists continue even today to seek cures for other diseases and rely on fetal tissue in their work. (Remember when we were all gleefully dumping buckets of ice water over our heads to cure ALS? We were doing so to support research that involves fetal tissue.)
People who choose to donate fetal tissue after an abortion often do so because they want to help others, not because they've been deceived by mustachioed villains hiding behind operating curtains. Planned Parenthood recoups the costs of storing and transporting tissue for the many, many other entities, some of them public, that use fetal tissue to conduct research, and it's totally legal for Planned Parenthood, or any other medical entity that participates in fetal tissue donation programs, to collect this reimbursement. (According to the New York Times, more than 50 universities received more than $76 million from the National Institutes of Health last year for research involving fetal tissue.) And it's tissue brokers – the "middlemen" between an entity like Planned Parenthood and a research program – that are seeing most of the money when it comes to tissue procurement of any kind.
The CMP campaign against Planned Parenthood is not about fetal tissue donation. It's about abortion, and it's about using deception, hyperbole and outright lies to foment outrage about a medical procedure that is legal, safe and common. CMP's intent is to make abortion illegal, full stop.
You'll note that I don't describe CMP as being motivated to end abortion; it's illogical in the extreme to want to eliminate a massive provider of affordable contraception in the service of ending abortion. People get abortions because they don't want to be pregnant. Not getting pregnant in the first place is a pretty good way – maybe even the best way – to not need an abortion, and Planned Parenthood helps millions of people not get pregnant until they're ready to carry that pregnancy to term.
You know someone who's had an abortion. Maybe you yourself have had one, maybe even at a Planned Parenthood. Millions of people walk through the doors of Planned Parenthood clinics every year seeking all kinds of services.
It should be unsurprising, then, that Planned Parenthood has more popular support than the United States' two leading political parties, more support than President Obama, than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. People – regular old average people like you and me – like Planned Parenthood.
But right-wing ideologues, religious zealots and the lawmakers who spend their energy pandering to them, do not like Planned Parenthood. Many of these folks claim that defunding Planned Parenthood – an idea that, for now at least, appears to be in Congress' rearview mirror – won't be a big deal, that there are plenty of health care providers out there who can see millions of displaced Planned Parenthood patients.
After all, we've got the Affordable Care Act these days, right? Anybody can just walk into a doctor's office and get whatever they need? Wrong. Planned Parenthood serves – effectively, and relatively cheaply – a huge percentage of Americans who need affordable or free reproductive health care services. When Planned Parenthood is prevented from serving low-income people through publicly funded health care programs, fewer people get reproductive health care. We've seen it happening, live, in Texas. According to the state's own data, 10 percent fewer Texans got the family planning care they needed after the state ousted Planned Parenthood from receiving public funds, and the state now spends more money – more taxpayer dollars – on care for fewer people.
When we close clinics, the remaining clinics and doctors cannot magically see millions of new patients. Imagine if the abortion debate was, instead, about cardiology care. Would you expect your internist, your gynecologist, your oral surgeon to be able to treat heart disease because the government believed heart surgeons to be unethical?
Why, then, do we believe people will be able to get an IUD or an abortion at, say, a colonoscopy clinic? Because those are the kinds of alternatives anti-abortion lawmakers are offering to Planned Parenthood. Seriously. Just last week, Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas suggested on Twitter that people could get birth control at a mobile children's clinic.
The reality is that the sheer size of the organized subterfuge Planned Parenthood would have had to orchestrate in the service of a fetal tissue scam precludes any argument about whether such a scam actually exists. Ask yourself which of these scenarios is more likely: That thousands of doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, support staff, educators, community leaders, lawmakers, pharmacists and volunteers have been brainwashed into actively participating in a decades-long conspiracy to coerce people into having unplanned pregnancies so Planned Parenthood could murder infants and profit off the harvesting of the resulting tissue – not to mention the millions of people who would have had to keep mum about the wanted babies they knew to have been murdered? Or that religious extremists have an axe to grind against an organization that provides abortions?
What do you think?