A hyperbolic attempt by Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood was blocked in the Senate on Tuesday after a series of sting videos showed the agency selling aborted fetal tissue to fake medical researchers causing outrage among the social conservative wing of the party. The anti-abortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, released four videos in serial fashion, as well as having announced that more videos will be forthcoming. While some on both sides may find the videos disturbing, with Planned Parenthood president, Cecile Richards apologizing for the tone of the employees in a Washington Post op-ed, she wrote that nothing shown on the videos is illegal. Richards noted that “No doctor ever signed a contract with these folks. They repeatedly said we don’t do this for financial gain.” Richards said that the tissue samples are voluntarily donated by women in clinics in three states, adding “And that research is really important to millions of Americans.”
Although by law, Planned Parenthood does not use taxpayer money to pay for abortions not caused by rape or incest, Republicans drafted a measure to defund the agency of its $500 million annual budget. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who requested that the legislation be drafted, tried to stoke the flames of outrage, saying “They must be moved by the horrifying images we have seen. They must be shocked by the utter lack of compassion we have seen on display.” Democrats were able to prevent the bill from making it to a floor debate in a 53-46 vote, with 60 votes needed to advance the measure. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill spoke for many in the Senate finding the defunding attempt to be ludicrous, saying “If I want to reduce abortions, which we all ought to agree on, the dumbest thing we can do is to cut off access to birth control. And that’s exactly what the Republicans are trying to do.” Only roughly 10 percent of the agency’s activities involve abortion, with the rest promoting birth control methods, women’s health screenings and preventive care, and educational outreach, among others.
Richards also pointed out the poor choice of timing by the group in making the sting, as teen pregnancies are at a 40-year low thanks in part, she says, to the efforts of Planned Parenthood. Richards also pointed out that the complicated sting was likely illegal. Leading that effort was anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, who went as far as filing state papers for a fake company, BioMax Procurement Services, in order to establish credibility and attend conferences sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Richards said “The depravity of these tactics and the invasion, the willingness of this group to invade the most personal, private space and to violate the medical relationships. I’ve never seen anything as low.” She also pointed out that the agency has been under constant assault since Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was arrested 99 years ago for distributing pamphlets about birth control. In a recent interview, Richards said, “There hasn’t been a moment in our history, when we were pushing forward on reproductive health care rights and access for women that someone wasn’t after us.”
Recent polls vary regarding public support of Planned Parenthood following the release of the videos. While a Hart Research Associates poll taken a week after the first video was released shows that 63 percent of registered voters support Planned Parenthood, a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll taken last week shows that although only 52 percent of Americans are paying attention to the issue, 58 percent of those people believe that Planned Parenthood funding should be cut off. Firebrand Senator Jodi Ernst (R-IA), who was elected in 2014 while running a vocal anti-abortion campaign, has spearheaded the defunding efforts. Ernst said in a floor speech Monday, “As a mother and a grandmother, the gravity of Planned Parenthood’s callous and morally reprehensible behavior cannot be ignored.” Moderate Republicans like Maine’s Susan Collins, however, notes that defunding the agency will likely overwhelm other women’s health care facilities, reducing additional healthcare options for women. Despite her objections, Collins, along with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, supported an amendment ordering a Department of Justice investigation into whether or not Planned Parenthood engaged in illegal behavior with the aborted fetuses. Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Chuck Grassley, another Iowa Republican, announced last month that his committee will also be investigating the matter.
Abortion and women’s health has been tricky territory for Republicans in recent years, including Former Kansas Republican Congressman Todd Akin’s astounding display of ignorance regarding female anatomy. Akin set a new bar in 2012, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that pregnancies from rape are rare, and that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Democrats successfully ran against the GOP’s ignorance on women’s health issues, labeling it a “war on women” in 2012, with several female Republicans vocally opposing their male colleagues’ lack of medical knowledge. That mantra seemed to have lost its steam by 2014, however, with Ernst’s election exemplifying its lack of effectiveness. Despite comments like Akin’s and a litany of several others from state-level lawmakers, social conservatives have managed to whittle away at abortion laws through state-level action. According to the Guttmacher Institute, there have been 282 state-level measures restricting abortions enacted in the past five years.
The blockage of the defunding bill has led some in the Senate like Ted Cruz (R-TX), and former presidential candidate John McCain (R-AZ) to openly contemplate a government shutdown over the matter. Cruz led the ill-fated 2013 shutdown in response to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. Regarding this matter, Cruz said “We should use any and every procedural means we have available to end funding for Planned Parenthood.” McCain, who vocally opposed the 2013 shutdown, said “I don’t like a government shutdown, but this is a clear case of totally improper use of taxpayers’ dollars. I have an obligation to the taxpayers of Arizona.” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke for several Democrats, actively goading the GOP to race towards a shutdown. Schumer noted, “Have Republicans learned nothing? They tried to do this over [ACA] and had to walk away weeks later with their tail between their legs. Ted Cruz said, ‘Follow me.’ And they followed him for three weeks, until they got to the very edge of the cliff. Are they going to do that again?” Congress has adjourned for the August recess, however the issue will pick up even more fervently in September. While serving as a tremendous fundraising opportunity for lawmakers with a social conservative base, the bill itself would have had no chance of avoiding President Obama’s veto pen.
Christian Science Monitor – Francine Kiefer
New York Times – Jackie Calmes
NPR – Alisa Chang