Discredited sting videos haunt Planned Parenthood as DOJ opens investigation

Here we go again.

In this April 29, 2016, file photo, CMP head David Robert Daleiden, right, with attorney Jared Woodfill leave a courtroom after a hearing in Houston. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File
In this April 29, 2016, file photo, CMP head David Robert Daleiden, right, with attorney Jared Woodfill leave a courtroom after a hearing in Houston. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File

The Department of Justice is moving to investigate Planned Parenthood’s transfer of fetal tissue, continuing the fall-out from discredited sting videos released two years ago by an anti-abortion group.

On Thursday, the Justice Department reportedly asked Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) for documents relating to a Senate committee’s report on Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue practices. The documents in question pertain to a Senate Judiciary Committee report from December 2016. The Daily Beast reported that the documents are meant “for investigative use.”

“At this point, the records are intended for investigative use only – we understand that a resolution from the Senate may be required if the department were to use any of the unredacted materials in a formal legal proceeding, such as a grand jury,” wrote Stephen Boyd, the department’s assistant attorney general. The letter does not mention Planned Parenthood by name.

The request seems set to re-open a controversy surrounding the use of fetal tissue, as well as Planned Parenthood more generally. In 2015, the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of heavily-edited videos claiming to show Planned Parenthood representatives illegally selling fetal tissue for profit, something the reproductive health nonprofit strongly denied. Several investigations in the time since have found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood, while CMP’s founder and another member have faced legal consequences.

When Grassley released the report a year ago, he called for the Justice Department to further investigate Planned Parenthood, along with any other companies connected to the transfer of fetal tissue. Under a 1993 law, human fetal tissue cannot be bought or sold (with an exemption for costs associated with transfer). The report claimed three companies had broken that law, none of which were Planned Parenthood. Grassley claimed the report provided enough evidence to refer the issue to the FBI.

“I don’t take lightly making a criminal referral but the seeming disregard for the law by these entities has been fueled by decades of utter failure by the Justice Department to enforce it,” the senator said at the time. “And, unless there is a renewed commitment by everyone involved against commercializing the trade in aborted fetal body parts for profit, then the problem is likely to continue.”

Planned Parenthood has said repeatedly that only a small number of its affiliates share fetal tissue with researchers and that money is no longer exchanged (previously a “service fee” was paid). At the time of the initial 2016 report, representatives from Planned Parenthood emphasized that the findings absolved the organization.

“Planned Parenthood’s standards have always gone above and beyond what the law required,” said Planned Parenthood’s vice president of government relations Dana Singiser. “As investigation after investigation has shown, Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong. Senator Grassley’s report attempts to paint a nefarious picture of the simple re-formatting of a document—showing once again that there is no actual wrongdoing to point to.”

It is unclear what further investigations will reveal about Planned Parenthood’s practices that isn’t already known. The decision is further proof that sting videos hold significant power and sway. While the Judiciary Committee’s finding were not based on the CMP videos, their release prompted the report.

The videos themselves were strongly influenced by conservative activist James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas. That organization has been linked to recent efforts to market a false sexual assault allegation targeting Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, seemingly in an effort to discredit the numerous allegations made by other women. The videos made by CMP have had a long-lasting impact themselves, inspiring a wave of legislative efforts around the country, in addition to a deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado.

Those consequences have stretched into this year. Two weeks ago, Arkansas cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood for a second time, part of an effort inspired by CMP’s footage. That controversy is only likely to continue as the Justice Department moves to investigate the organization. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated his strong opposition for abortion but said he would adhere to federal law guaranteeing the procedure when he assumed his current position.