On July 14, 2015, an obscure organisation called “The Center for Medical Progress” posted the first in a series of videos that have dominated the news headlines in the U.S. for weeks. The Center was a somewhat mysterious group; their social media accounts having only been created a few days before they published the videos. They were taking on a huge institution: Planned Parenthood, an organisation that provides health services including cancer screenings, contraception and abortion for women in the U.S.
The video footage released was filmed by Center activists who had posed as biomedical company representatives interested in acquiring fetal tissue during meetings with Planned Parenthood officials. The talks had been recorded secretly. In the meetings, the Planned Parenthood doctors seem to talk in an emotionless manner about gut-wrenching details of abortion procedures over wine and salad, and offer fetal tissue extracted from aborted fetuses for sale to the activists. What a bombshell revelation. Not only had Planned Parenthood acted immorally, it had also broken the law – selling body parts for profit is illegal in the United States.
The deeds of Planned Parenthood seemed gruesome. But are the sting videos really the full story?
Soon, a controversial public debate followed. Planned Parenthood became the subject of innumerous talk shows and the number one enemy of the American right-wing. Republican presidential hopefuls are politically capitalising on the controversy. The Planned Parenthood debate has been highly emotional and loaded – but what is it exactly about? What is Planned Parenthood, who are its critics and what do they want?
Planned Parenthood and abortion in the USA
In 1973, the Supreme Court settled two landmark cases – one of which would eventually become the symbol for the abortion struggle: Roe v. Wade – a historical synonym today – and the equally important Doe v. Bolton. Abortion is a right-to-privacy issue, the court concluded, and therapeutic abortion boards are unconstitutional, as well as ruling that restrictions on abortion violated women’s rights to health care. However, the conflicts and debates about abortion are not yet settled. The controversy between pro-choice activists – in favor of women’s access to abortion – and pro-life groups has intensely continued ever since in courtroom battles, elections and on the streets of the United States. This issue has divided the U.S. like no other – politically, religiously, culturally and socially. In an ironic turn of events, Norma McCorvey, the historical Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, would later befriend a radical anti-abortion activist and regret her role in the landmark ruling.
The history of the abortion and women’s rights struggle is closely connected to the story of Planned Parenthood. In 1916, nurse and feminist Margaret Sanger, her sister, and a friend opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Sanger was a pioneer, and she faced arrest and trial for providing information about birth control. In 1936, she and her supporters won a court of appeals orders review of the strict Comstock laws. Sanger’s organisation, later to be named Planned Parenthood, becomes one of the nation’s leading voices in the fight for reproductive justice and progressive birth control.
(For more information about abortion in American history, see “From Comstock to Roe – Abortion in American History”)
The truth about the Planned Parenthood videos
The Center for Medical Progress videotapes of Planned Parenthood employees have sparked a massive backlash against the health service provider. However, one must question the validity of those videos as journalistic source: independent experts contacted by Planned Parenthood found that the video material has been heavily edited, and that the transcripts provided by the Center for Medical Progress are incomplete and partially incorrect.
In fact, while in the shortened version of one video – viewed over two million times on Youtube – a Planned Parenthood official seems to admit the organisation sells fetal tissue for profit (which would be a crime under US law), the uncut version of the video reveals that the official emphasizes it only charges to cover its costs for storing and shipping the tissue specimen, a common and perfectly legal practice. Yet both Republican frontbenchers Rick Perry and Rand Paul picked up the false claim that PPFA was making profit off its fetal tissue ‘ business’. The New York Times editorial board slammed The Centre for Medical Progress campaign as “dishonest“ and described fetal tissue donation as “legal, voluntary and potentially life-saving“.
Nevertheless, the right wing has chosen Planned Parenthood as its main target. Michelle Malkin, a conservative columnist, smeared the organisation as “barbaric baby butchers“, and right-wing TV anchorman Bill O’Reilly of the notoriously biased Fox News Channel said that “many people feel this is Nazi stuff.” On RedState, a commentary blog, an author called Planned Parenthood “our Auschwitz“ and bizarrely claimed it was “outpacing“ the Nazis.
Planned Parenthood became a major talking point – and an opportunity for Republican presidential candidates to reach a conservative, Christian voter base.
Soon, Republicans found Planned Parenthood’s weak point: its 500-million dollar federal funding, which accounts for about forty percent of its budget. All Republican presidential candidates (with the exception of Donald Trump, who initially backed the measure then changed his mind) support defunding Planned Parenthood. In early August, however, a proposed bill failed to reach enough votes in the Senate. However, many states launched investigations into Planned Parenthood and five states recently capped taxpayer funding for the organisation: Alabama, Louisiana, Utah, Arkansas and New Hampshire; and some congressional Republicans are threatening to block the government’s budget bill this fall over the issue.
And in June, Texas legislators – even before the release of the deceptively edited videos – moved to exclude Planned Parenthood from a programme that provides cancer screening for poor women. This is likely to leave thousands of Texan women – including disproportionately many Hispanics – without access to cancer screenings.
This assault on Planned Parenthood comes as a growing number of official inquiries exonerate the organisation. Five state investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of any allegations of improper practices.
Personally, I believe that there is neither a legal nor a major moral case against Planned Parenthood. The video used to attack PPFA is deceptively edited, and therefore, not a credible or reliable journalistic source.
Yes, the way some PPFA doctors speak about abortion seems somewhat insensitive, yet the reason why their words are so shocking is because medical procedures are something rarely talked about, exactly because it always sounds very horrifying.
No matter how ugly the descriptions of a professionally carried-out abortion may be, they shouldn’t distract us from the invaluable medical progress fetal tissue research has made possible. Fetal tissue research might help find treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s, HIV or Hepatitis and has been accepted by medical ethics for decades. The only thing the videos prove is the lengths to which the pro-life (or, as you may put it, anti-choice) movement is willing to go to discredit trusted organisations such as Planned Parenthood.
Their manufactured controversy is all smoke and mirrors.
This is not about Planned Parenthood; it’s about women’s rights and reproductive health. While the nation is debating these tapes, the Right has been waging war on women’s freedoms. The true reason why Planned Parenthood is being vilified is not the Center for Medical Progress tapes, but the plain fact that it gives women in need access to safe abortions. In the first debate among GOP presidential candidates in early August, all – I repeat – all candidates spoke out in favour of an abortion ban without any exceptions or remained silent on the matter. Terminating a pregnancy would even be illegal if the mother had been raped, was a victim of incest or her life was in danger. This outright criminalisation would put women in a dreadful situation, forcing them to turn to illegal abortion clinics, where often enough, unprofessional procedures endangering the mother’s health are performed.
The pundits are trying to convince us the bigger picture in this is the evil of the abortion ‘industry’. In reality, it’s the Christian Right-wing’s crusade against reproductive justice.
Stripping Planned Parenthood of 40 percent of its budget would have a terrible impact on women’s access to reproductive health care, disproportionately affecting poor households. In 2013, Planned Parenthood provided 500,000 breast exams and 4.5 million tests and treatments for sexually transmittable infections (STI). For now, these crucial health services might be safe, as President Obama vowed to veto any bills that would defund Planned Parenthood. However, under a Republican administration that might take office after the November 2016 presidential elections, Planned Parenthood could be fair game. What is at stake matters to everyone, not only pregnant women: this is not only an attack on abortion, it is also an attack on the very principles of human dignity, equality, and personal freedom.