Hit hard by a series of graphic, secretly recorded videos, Planned Parenthood has spent the past five weeks fighting off accusations that it profits from sales of fetal body parts for medical research.
The recorded conversations and shocking images of fetal tissue have ignited skirmishes across the country as the long war over abortion stretches on. State and federal investigations have been launched, and anti-abortion legislators have held up the video campaign as enough reason to defund Planned Parenthood, even though the organization relies more on donations than government funding.
But the videos, which were captured by hidden cameras as part of a strategy funded by abortion opponents, have had an additional effect. They’ve also roused support for Planned Parenthood, which provides a variety of health services for women, including abortion and contraceptive services. Abortion accounts for about 3 percent of the services it provides, the organization says.
On one front, #StandWithPP petitions have garnered more than 900,000 online signatures, the group said.
On another, the respected New England Journal of Medicine published two essays in support of the organization. One concludes: “We thank the women who made the choice to help improve the human condition through their tissue donation. … We are outraged by those who debase these women, this work, and Planned Parenthood by distorting the facts for political ends.”
By the time the seventh video by the Irvine, Calif.-based Center for Medical Progress was posted online Wednesday, Planned Parenthood had launched its own public relations offensive to debunk what its leaders decry as spurious charges.
Planned Parenthood’s position has remained steadfast throughout the center’s campaign. Yes, the organization collects tissue at some of its facilities from patients who want to donate for scientific research – but not for profit. “We do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does – with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards,” according to a recent statement.
Even so, Wednesday’s video – accompanied by a blog post whose headline read, “Planned Parenthood aborted baby’s heart still beating in late-term organ harvesting case” – is an indication the fight is far from over. The Irvine group has said it shot surreptitious video over nearly three years and as many as five more videos are expected in coming weeks.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the videos show how little has changed. “Ninety-nine years ago, Margaret Sanger was arrested for handing out birth control pamphlets,” she said. “And we’re still under attack.”
Laguens said the videos have been deceptively edited and are simply an “anti-abortion, Planned Parenthood-destroying strategy.” She likens it to the 2004 push to assail then-Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry’s military record in Vietnam, considered by many one of the ugliest, most unfair attacks in recent political memory.
At least one conservative consultant working on the anti-Planned Parenthood effort had a hand in the so-called Swift Boat campaign. Peter Robbio, who represents the Center for Medical Progress, handled public relations for the book “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.” Although the Swift Boat claims were later discredited, they seriously damaged Kerry’s White House hopes.
There is no disputing that the Planned Parenthood videos have raised the profile of the Center for Medical Progress, which calls itself “a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances.” Its first video, posted July 14, runs nearly nine minutes and has been viewed almost 3 million times on YouTube.
In the videos, a man and a woman purporting to work for a biomedical company secretly recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood officials. Several of the videos show clinic workers poking around with forceps in plates holding aborted fetal tissue.
Three videos include interviews with a former worker from a Placerville, Calif.-based company called StemExpress. Holly O'Donnell is identified as an ex-procurement technician. She describes company technicians allegedly gathering aborted tissue without consent and says, “I’m not going to tell a girl to kill her baby so I can get money. That’s what this company does.”
Planned Parenthood and StemExpress deny the allegations. The biomedical company has sued the Center for Medical Progress to keep it from releasing a video of Chief Executive Catherine Dyer that was taken without her knowledge. StemExpress was granted a temporary restraining order.
According to StemExpress’ application for the restraining order, the center’s founder, David Daleiden, and a colleague set up a fake biomedical company called BioMax Procurement Services, used false names and surreptitiously recorded Dyer in violation of California law.
Daleiden did not respond to requests for comment. In a written statement supplied by Robbio, the organization said it follows “all applicable laws in the course of our investigative journalism work and will contest all attempts from Planned Parenthood and their allies to silence our First Amendment rights and suppress investigative journalism.”
On Friday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joanne O'Donnell ruled that the Center for Medical Progress does have a First Amendment right to make the recording public, even though California law prohibits the unauthorized recording of confidential conversations.
O'Donnell ruled that StemExpress had shown it had a good chance of prevailing in court on an invasion of privacy claim. Nevertheless, she ruled, the court did not have the legal authority to impose prior restraint and stop the anti-abortion group from publishing the video.
Friday afternoon, the Center for Medical Progress posted a partial transcript of the video in question. The group also said it soon would put the full video up on its website. StemExpress said in a statement that it disagreed with the court’s decision and “will continue to pursue its claims for damages and to hold defendants accountable for their illegal conduct.”
From the beginning, reaction to the video campaign has been swift, with officials in Louisiana, New Hampshire, Utah, Alabama and Arkansas saying they would yank funding for Planned Parenthood. “I respect human life,” said Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley, “and I do not want Alabama to be associated with an organization that does not.”
About a dozen states have launched some form of investigation. Massachusetts, South Dakota, Indiana, Georgia and Pennsylvania have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing.
Legislators opposed to abortion have asked U.S. Attorney General. Loretta Lynch and California Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate Planned Parenthood, and supporters of the organization have asked Lynch and Harris to investigate the Center for Medical Progress.
Planned Parenthood, however, does not even gather fetal tissue for research in any of the states that launched investigations. That practice only occurs in California, Oregon and Washington, the organization said. And the donation of fetal tissue is legal in all three. Federal law also allows the donation of fetal tissue for medical research as long as the donor signs a written consent form before the procedure.
Elizabeth Nash, state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization, said the issues raised by the Center for Medical Progress had been seemingly settled for more than a decade. Most states, she said, have a legal structure in place for donating fetal tissue and for using this tissue.
“It seems like this whole issue is one that for many, many years has had regulation around it at both state and federal levels,” Nash said. “People involved in this work are well aware of these laws.”
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.