Controversy is swirling around Planned Parenthood following the release of several videos claiming that the national women’s health organization is inappropriately profiting from the sale of aborted fetuses. On the surface, the allegations are quite concerning. However, the story takes on a different tone when considering the source of the inflammatory claims.
On Tuesday, the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released a video depicting a Planned Parenthood employee discussing the cost of handling a fetal tissue sample. Right-wing outlets are describing the video’s subject, Dr. Mary Gatter, the president of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Directors’ Council, as “haggling over baby-part pricing.”
The release comes on the heels of a different video released last week that secretly recorded another employee discussing what abortion opponents describe as Planned Parenthood’s scheme to “sell baby parts.” In that video, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, speaks frankly — and occasionally crassly — about the process of fetal tissue donation. The organization has since apologized for Nucatola’s tone.
Though members of Congress are ready to take action, demanding that Planned Parenthood employees testify before a House committee about how the organization handles tissue donation, there are a few things to keep in mind about the group of activists pushing this media narrative:
They’re infamous for heavily edited videos designed to mislead viewers.
Live Action, a group founded by leading abortion opponent Lila Rose when she was just 15 years old, has become infamous for conducting undercover “stings” designed to discredit Planned Parenthood. Live Action typically releases videos that have been heavily edited to cast abortion providers in an unflattering light; however, upon further scrutiny, their claims that Planned Parenthood is breaking the law don’t hold up.
For instance, Rose has previously claimed that she has evidence that Planned Parenthood employees cover up sex trafficking, lie about providing mammograms, and profit off of abortions — allegations that cannot be backed up with evidence.
The recent videos are no exception. Though abortion opponents say they provide proof that Planned Parenthood is breaking federal laws by selling organs, fetal tissue donation has in fact been legal for decades. They’re also edited to appear more nefarious; in the full transcript of the first video, for instance, Nucatola says several times that the organization is not “selling” tissue, but rather being compensated for the cost of transporting the donations. “Nobody should be ‘selling’ tissue. That’s just not the goal here,” she says at one point.
Lila Rose’s work is inspired by James O’Keefe, another conservative activist who’s become infamous for releasing misleading undercover videos, which have been criticized by law enforcement officials for their “highly selective editing of reality.”
They’ve been trying to take down Planned Parenthood for years.
According to Planned Parenthood’s attorney, Daleiden has participated in at least 10 separate undercover investigations designed to target Planned Parenthood over the past eight years. His efforts have allegedly involved lying about his intentions to gain access to clinics, taping staff without their knowledge, and releasing several deceptive recordings to the public. In a letter to Congress, the group’s lawyer said this fits into a decades-long pattern of harassment aimed at doctors who provide abortion care.
Indeed, law professor David Cohen, who recently published a book detailing the violence and harassment leveled against abortion providers, describes this coordinated campaign against Planned Parenthood as “professional harassment.” Live Action and David Daleiden may not be bombing clinics or picketing doctors’ homes — which are the more visible types of anti-abortion harassment that continue to plague the people working in this field. However, according to Cohen, their preferred tactics are having a big impact in a different way.
“Another form of individually targeting abortion providers that we found is what we call professional harassment — finding some way to smear their professional identity. That’s what happening here,” Cohen told ThinkProgress. “This can have serious effects for the provider whose professional identity is now tarnished. It can also have effects for their patients, because providers may be wary about talking to their colleagues openly about anything related to medicine if they’re fearful they’re going to be recorded.”
They’re connected to the most extreme anti-choice activists in the country.
Though the Center for Medical Progress and Live Action are spearheading the current campaign against Planned Parenthood, the narrative is being helped along by some of the most radical anti-abortion activists in the country.
According to several media reports, the individuals registered as a board members for the Center for Medical Progress include Troy Newman — the head of the infamous group Operation Rescue, which mounted a years-long campaign to take down Dr. George Tiller. Though Newman publicly condemned Tiller’s murder after the doctor was gunned down in his church in 2009, his group has multiple ties to extreme activists who have landed in jail for perpetrating violence against abortion doctors.
“There’s a direct connection between this group, the Center for Medical Progress, and some of the worst characters in the anti-abortion extremist movement,” Cohen said.
Plus, Cohen points out that the allegations currently being leveled against Planned Parenthood echo another potential connection to Tiller’s murder. In the lead-up to his death, Tiller was involved in a lengthy legal battle regarding allegations that he had an improper financial relationship with his second opinion doctor. He was eventually acquitted of those charges — but it’s a reminder that professional harassment can sometimes be escalated to physical harassment.
“Ultimately, he was acquitted, but the acquittal came at the expense of him being murdered,” Cohen said. “Scott Roeder was sitting in the courtroom when Tiller was acquitted on these charges, and he was so furious that he stepped up his campaign against Tiller, who was assassinated just a month or two later.”
They may have broken the law while recording their sting videos.
MSNBC’s Irin Carmon reports that it’s unclear whether the Center for Medical Progress’ video stings were legal in the first place. They were recorded in California, where state law requires all parties to consent to a recording — but the Planned Parenthood employees were unaware that they were being filmed, and didn’t realize they were speaking with abortion opponents posing as buyers from a biological company.
Planned Parenthood’s legal counsel agrees, suggesting in their letter to Congress that activists like Daleiden have been illegally filming inside their clinics for years. The letter also notes that Daleiden may have gained access to clinics by using a falsified California driver’s license.
On Monday, a statement on the Center for Medical Progress website said the group “follows all applicable laws in the course of our investigative journalism work.”
They have influence over right-wing lawmakers.
Regardless of the fact that the emerging allegations against Planned Parenthood are being pushed by fringe members of the anti-abortion community, they’re being taken quite seriously by members of the Republican Party.
GOP presidential candidates have been quick to condemn the videos, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) launched a state-level investigation into Planned Parenthood last week, which will have the immediate effect of preventing a new clinic from opening in New Orleans. House GOP leaders have also called for investigations on the congressional level, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee is deciding whether to hold hearings.
Some reproductive rights proponents are suspicious that the anti-abortion activists behind the videos are directly coordinating with Republican leadership. CQ Roll Call reported, for example, that a few GOP politicians have let it slip that they knew about the first video weeks before it was published.