When a Texas county opened the country’s first criminal investigation into Planned Parenthood — an investigation that was spurred by a series of undercover videos accusing the group of illegally trafficking aborted fetus parts — Devon Anderson probably wasn’t the prosecutor that abortion rights supporters would have chosen themselves.
Anderson, a Republican who has described herself as a “proud, pro-life Texan and mother of two,” was appointed by former Gov. Rick Perry (R) and endorsed by Texas Right to Life. GOP groups in Texas have honored her for being particularly tough on crime.
At the beginning of the investigation into the Austin-area Planned Parenthood clinic, Anderson pledged to “use every resource allocated to this office to conduct a thorough investigation” and, if she uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing, “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”
But the grand jury process didn’t play out as expected. The jury ended up clearing Planned Parenthood completely, instead moving to indict the two anti-abortion activists responsible for the inflammatory videos targeting the organization. Now, Anderson’s work is being celebrated in the editorial pages of major newspapers and derided by pro-life groups who accuse her of “anti-life corruption” and “covering up abortion-related crimes.”
It’s not the first time this dynamic has emerged in Anderson’s career. In 2013, she faced similar backlash from anti-choice groups after her office declined to indict an abortion doctor who was accused of performing illegal late-term abortions.
At the time, the campaign against Dr. Douglas Karpen bore a lot of similarities to the current campaign against Planned Parenthood. Karpen was plagued with accusations from an extreme anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, that’s become infamous for its aggressive — and often militant — tactics targeting legal abortion providers.
Before the investigation, Operation Rescue released an extensive report filled with grisly allegations about what they referred to as Karpen’s “killing center.” The report included gruesome photos that the group said were taken in Karpen’s clinic by former employees. Anti-abortion activists claimed Karpen was killing babies born alive by snipping their necks. Although all of those complaints had already been investigated and dismissed by the Texas Medical Board, anti-abortion activists pressured the Harris County District Attorney to investigate further. Once Anderson’s office did, however, it became clear that there simply wasn’t enough evidence.
“The credible evidence clearly established that Dr. Karpen has always gone above and beyond to ensure that he adheres to the letter of the law in his medical practice,” the doctor’s lawyer said in a statement after the DA’s office reached its conclusion.
Now, anti-choice groups are pointing to the Karpen case to argue that Anderson clearly can’t be trusted to investigate abortion providers. “Should Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson and her prosecutors be added to the list of Planned Parenthood accomplices across the country?” muses a Texas Right to Life blog post published this week.
Anderson has firmly denied this, emphasizing both her pro-life credentials and her obligation to conduct fair and fact-based investigations.
“The inconvenient truth of a criminal investigation is that it doesn’t always lead where you want to go,” Anderson said in a statement on Wednesday in response to the criticism she’s faced this week. “Anyone who pays attention knows that I’m pro-life. I believe abortion is wrong, but my personal belief does not relieve me of my obligation to follow the law.”
According to the Associated Press, “those who know the former judge say she is no ideologue and won’t buckle to politics.” Indeed, the disconnect between Anderson’s personal stance on abortion and her official findings about abortion providers speaks to a larger truth at the heart of anti-abortion activism: The current debate is dishonest.
If reasonable people can disagree about their personal stances on abortion, they should also be able to agree that the political conversation about abortion has strayed far from reality. Right now, the national debate is being driven by a small network of particularly extreme activists that have a history of advocating for violence against abortion providers. The head of Operation Rescue, the group that went after Dr. Karpen, for example, sits on the board of the Center for Medical Progress, the group that released the videos about Planned Parenthood. These activists have become infamous for conducting undercover “investigations” that are heavily manipulated to cast abortion clinics in an unflattering light, but their claims tend to fall apart under further scrutiny.
Nonetheless, their extreme narratives about abortion — including wild accusations that professional medical clinics are trafficking in baby parts, decapitating live babies, and dismembering unborn children limb from limb — are gaining traction in mainstream politics.
States across the country have initiated investigations into Planned Parenthood based on little concrete evidence (and have failed to turn up any proof the organization is breaking the law). GOP legislators have passed new laws based on the argument that monstrous abortion doctors need to be stopped from callously ripping apart fetuses. A case currently before the Supreme Court alleges that abortion providers across the state of Texas are engaged in the same behavior that Dr. Douglas Karpen was falsely accused of. And Anderson’s latest announcement shows no signs of deterring Republican politicians from pressing ahead on these fronts.
“After all, how important are the facts when there is self-interest to be served and a political point to be made?” the Washington Post’s editorial board wryly noted this week in an op-ed calling for Republicans to drop the crusade against Planned Parenthood.
More broadly, there’s some evidence that the priorities of the far-right extremists who are leading the current debate don’t align with those of the everyday Americans who are personally opposed to abortion.
New polling commissioned by the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) — a group working to conduct more nuanced research on Americans’ attitudes toward abortion — finds that voters are unhappy about the current abortion landscape once they learn more about what anti-choice lawmakers have been focused on. Once participants look at a chart detailing how many different abortion laws are in place in their state, most of them say they don’t support the legislative trend. And when asked to provide one word in response, even some pro-life people who believe abortion should be illegal in most cases choose words like “bullshit,” “ridiculous,” “tragic,” “ashamed of our country,” “offensive,” “crazy,” and “disturbing.”
“The attacks that have been happening are ultimately an overreach so far beyond where the American public is,” Andrea Miller, the president of NIRH, told ThinkProgress in a previous interview. As Devon Anderson illustrates, they’re beyond fair-minded pro-life people, too.