Opinion

The GOP campaign to destroy Planned Parenthood has nothing to do with the videos

It's about abortion, plain and simple

With the Republican-controlled House in an uproar this week over the Planned Parenthood videos — which purportedly show the organization's officials engaging in the illegal sale of fetal organ tissue — it has become clear what has animated this months-long frenzy. It isn't what the videos claim to reveal. It isn't any illegality on Planned Parenthood's part. It's the GOP's implacable opposition to abortion, which existed long before the videos came to light.

To be sure, Republicans have been goaded by the videos themselves. They do not actually show what anti-abortion activists claim, but they contain a lot of graphic material that was dribbled out week after week, which succeeded in grabbing the media's attention. The story got considerably bigger when GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina mentioned it during the most recent Republican debate. She said, "As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes... Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'"

The ensuing response has focused on whether Fiorina made up this story out of whole cloth. And while the story is complicated, it's safe to say that Fiorina's statement is false in almost every particular, belying the notion that this campaign is about anything else than the conservative movement's obsession with abortion.

First of all, there are two main anti-abortion groups to keep straight here. The first is the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), which secretly recorded a bunch of videos at Planned Parenthood. The second is the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), which is the one that produced the video closest to what Fiorina described. This is a video of what appears to be either an abortion or a miscarriage, spliced with a different CMP tape to incorporate a voiceover about fetal organ tissue.

But when CBR released the "full tape," (warning: extremely graphic) which was actually five different shots spliced together, there was no statement about harvesting the brain, and CBR founder Gregg Cunningham was extremely squirrelly about what it actually showed. In an interview with Time's Michael Scherer, he resorted to CIA-esque evasions when asked about the origins of the tape: "I am neither confirming or denying the affiliation of the clinic who did this abortion." He did insist it was an abortion, but the only proof he presented was that nobody tried to save the fetus after it was delivered.

But as several medical specialists argued in a subsequent Time piece, a sane doctor would do no such thing. There is no reason to attempt violently intrusive intensive care on a 17-week-old fetus, because its lungs are simply not developed enough to work in the open air. The absolute edge of fetal viability is just under 22 weeks, and that only in a bare handful of cases. Nobody could be convicted of malpractice for failing to overturn simple medical reality. Another expert argued that the procedure looks exactly like a miscarriage, and might not even have been filmed in the United States.

There is little reason to take Cunningham's word on this one. (He did not respond to a request for comment.) CMP has already been caught using images of a miscarriage as an illustration for abortion, and even CMP's full tapes have unexplained gaps in the footage. Both these groups are run by anti-abortion zealots, and their work is highly reminiscent of that of James O'Keefe, the dirty trickster and convicted criminal who destroyed the community organizing group ACORN with a bunch of misleadingly edited, surreptitious recordings.

The duplicity has not been limited to the independent groups. During a congressional hearing on Planned Parenthood Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) used a hilariously misleading chart to purportedly demonstrate that the organization is doing almost nothing but abortions these days. But as Kevin Drum and Timothy Lee point out, when you use a chart with a proper y-axis and account for contraceptives, STI treatment, and testing, abortions still account for a tiny fraction of what Planned Parenthood does. Abortions have increased somewhat, but the rate of non-abortion services is still over 27 times higher.

Furthermore, the drop in cancer screenings, which Republicans attempted to trump up into a major blow against Planned Parenthood, happened in accordance with updated medical guidelines.

At any rate, the only legally actionable accusation in this whole mess is that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for a profit. Fetal tissue (including discarded embryos from fertility clinics) is used for all manner of medical research, including in vaccines, stem cells therapy, and degenerative diseases. Under federal law, it is illegal to profit from the sale of aborted fetuses, though it is legal to charge for processing and delivery.

The law doesn't specify what people can charge, so it's a bit of a legal gray area. Sarah Kliff watched all 12 hours of the CMP videos (as of mid-August), and concluded that while the vast majority of the instances mentioned were completely above-board, officials might have stepped close to the legal line a few times.

But was it enough to convict anybody at Planned Parenthood for violating the law? State investigations in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, South Dakota, and Massachusetts have found bupkis. This is likely why anti-abortion groups have resorted to maximally icky imagery to make their point. And it's probably why Republican congressmen couldn't lay a glove on Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards during their farcical hearing. They're determined to shut down the government to coerce President Obama into agreeing to defund Planned Parenthood, whether the organization violated the law or not.

The likely next House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, all but admitted this in an interview with Jake Tapper. Crediting the endless Benghazi committee for Hillary Clinton's dropping poll numbers, he suggested that Republicans use the same tactic against Planned Parenthood.

The whole controversy really boils down to attitudes about abortion. If you think it is murder, then obviously using a dead fetus for medical research is equally appalling. But if you support abortion, then it's madness to simply waste extremely valuable — indeed, potentially lifesaving — tissue out of a sense of squeamishness. All the rest is smoke and mirrors.

More From...

Picture of Ryan CooperRyan Cooper
Read All
Democrats' months of dithering
President Biden.
Opinion

Democrats' months of dithering

Will Biden publish the documents?
President Biden.
Opinion

Will Biden publish the documents?

Betraying his own state?
Joe Manchin.
Opinion

Betraying his own state?

American workers are fed up
A striking worker.
Opinion

American workers are fed up

Recommended

The Biden administration's sloppy supply chain spin
Biden administration members.
Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III

The Biden administration's sloppy supply chain spin

10 things you need to know today: October 21, 2021
The Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine
Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: October 21, 2021

Democrats' months of dithering
President Biden.
Picture of Ryan CooperRyan Cooper

Democrats' months of dithering

Senate Republicans block Joe Manchin's voting rights bill
Joe Manchin
No Joe

Senate Republicans block Joe Manchin's voting rights bill

Most Popular

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry indicted on charges of lying to federal investigators
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
see you in court

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry indicted on charges of lying to federal investigators

The American 'Great Resignation' by the numbers
Help wanted sign
Help Wanted

The American 'Great Resignation' by the numbers

NYC to impose vaccine mandate for all city workers
NYPD officers
'it's time'

NYC to impose vaccine mandate for all city workers