A group called the Center for Medical Progress has promised to release a series of a dozen undercover videos that it claims show that Planned Parenthood has violated the law in its donations of fetal tissue for medical research, or as the anti-choice “investigators” call it, “selling aborted baby parts” for profit.
The central claims of the Center’s videos don’t hold up to scrutiny — Planned Parenthood follows standard procedure in donating fetal tissue with the patient’s consent, and doesn’t turn a profit — but the legal claims are just a jumping-off point for what the group wants to accomplish.
The latest Planned Parenthood smear falls in a long line of attacks on the organization that have failed at proving any wrongdoing but succeeded at reinforcing long-held myths about the organization within the anti-choice movement. Previous attacks by activists related to the latest series of videos have made flimsy attempts to “prove” that Planned Parenthood targets people of color and harbors sex traffickers. Similarly, the latest attack hopes to reinforce the longstanding anti-choice myth that Planned Parenthood is a massive “industry” that preys on women for profit.
None of these specific claims have held up to the smallest amount of scrutiny, but that was never the point.
Instead, the Center for Medical Progress’ campaign is part of a long-running effort to undermine access to reproductive health care — including contraception, reproductive health screenings, sex education and legal abortion — by providing cover to legislators who want to dismantle women’s access to reproductive care.
As soon as activists started trumpeting the Center’s “investigation,” conservative members of Congress got to work on cutting off women’s health care funding, culminating in a Senate vote to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funds scheduled for Monday afternoon.
The Center for Medical Progress seems to have been created by the relatively unknown young activist David Daleiden for the sole purpose of producing and disseminating the series of videos smearing Planned Parenthood.
But that doesn’t mean Daleiden was working alone. In fact, he was able to tap into a network of seasoned anti-choice activists who specialize in distorted “investigations” meant to smear abortion providers.
As a student at Claremont McKenna College, Daleiden ran the campus chapter of the anti-choice group Live Action and took a job as the group’s national director of research. Daleiden joined Live Action as the group was launching a number of “stings” aimed at Planned Parenthood, resulting in deceptively edited videos similar in format to those Daleiden is now releasing.
One of those Live Action “stings” claimed to show that Planned Parenthood was covering up child sex trafficking. But that claim did not stand up to scrutiny, as we outlined in a report at the time:
In fact, far from proving a pattern of illegal activity, the Live Action project demonstrated that Planned Parenthood has strong institutional procedures in place to protect young women. When Live Action activists appeared at numerous facilities presenting themselves as seeking help with a child sex trafficking ring, Planned Parenthood wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting an FBI investigation. Live Action attempted its “sting” across the country; the one Planned Parenthood staffer who violated those procedures and is featured in Live Action’s video was fired.
Live Action is run by Lila Rose, a young activist who started the group as a 15-year-old high school student and continued her work while at UCLA. It was during college that Rose teamed up with James O’Keefe, the activist who famously dressed up in an exaggerated “pimp” outfit for a series of deceptive videos that ultimately brought down the community advocacy group ACORN, to launch their first attack on Planned Parenthood.
Along with her “undercover” work, Rose speaks frequently at abortion-clinic protests and conservative events, where she does little to hide her agenda to criminalize abortion and to, in her own words, “take out Planned Parenthood,” which she calls “the single most evil organization in human history.” In a speech to the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in 2009, Rose suggested that as long as abortion is legal, the procedure should be performed “in the public square.”
Rose appears to have been closely involved in Daleiden’s project: She was the one to first announce his first video release, prompting the news to cascade through conservative media.
Daleiden also benefited from the experience of Troy Newman, the head of Operation Rescue, who sits on the small board of directors of the Center for Medical Progress and says he provided “consultation services and material support” to Daleiden’s project.
Newman’s Operation Rescue grew out of a loose West Coast affiliate of the organization by the same name formerly headed by extremist activist Randall Terry. Newman moved his operation to Wichita, Kansas, in 2002 to go after George Tiller, one of the few abortion providers to offer the procedure in the late stages of pregnancy. When an anti-abortion extremist murdered Tiller in his church in 2009, Newman rushed to distance himself and his organization from Tiller’s assassin and from Terry, who told reporters that the murder was proper vengeance for the abortions Tiller had performed.
Although Newman has distanced himself from Tiller’s murder, he retains as his second-in-command at Operation Rescue Cheryl Sullenger, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 1988 for conspiring to bomb a San Diego abortion clinic. Sullenger co-wrote Newman’s latest book, “Abortion Free,” which counsels anti-choice activists on ways to go after and shut down abortion providers in their communities.
And while Newman is careful to publicly reject violence against abortion providers, he was not above rejoicing at an Arkansas provider’s death from leukemia in 2010, declaring, “In the end, God always gets the last word.” In 2003, Newman argued that a man sentenced to death for killing an abortion provider should have been allowed to argue that his crime was “a justifiable defensive action.” Newman also runs AbortionDocs.org, a website that lists photographs of and personal information about abortion providers.
Newman sees his fight against abortion rights as a divinely inspired one that provides for no middle ground or moral gray areas. He explains his strategy of targeting abortion providers as an attempt to “shut off the supply side of the abortion industry” in order to cut off “the Enemy’s ability to make war on the children.” He calls abortion a “demonic enterprise” that providers undertake for profit. He claims that God is sending “weather patterns” including the drought in California as punishment for legal abortion.
Daleiden also credited a group called the Life Legal Defense Foundation for “consulting on and helping to develop” his project. According to the group’s director, Catherine Short, LLDF grew out of defending “rescue” protestors arrested in front of abortion clinics and now agitates for restrictions on contraception and abortion.
In a speech on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Short declared, “Abortion is not and never has been a medical decision. It’s not about ‘women’s lives.’ It’s a social decision, a decision made by women to deal with situations in their life that almost never have anything to do with their life or their health.”
For Short, the fight against legal abortion and access to contraception are one and the same, since she claims that increased access to contraception will increase the instance of abortion. In her Roe anniversary speech, Short called birth control “terrible for women’s health” and lamented that with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate, “feminists” had managed to “get their anti-natalist, anti-child philosophy enshrined in public policy.”
Daleiden also has ties to Religious Right activists who are closely affiliated with the Republican Party. The Christian Broadcasting Network reports that the right-wing legal group American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is defending the Center for Medical Progress in court after a federal judge halted its release of some of the secretly recorded videos. Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of ACLJ, served as an adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Sekulow, along with his work in the US, has set up a number of international outposts including one that backs attempts to outlaw homosexuality and abortion in African countries.
As Daleiden completed his project, he enlisted some of the heaviest-hitters in the anti-choice movement for legal help. Americans United for Life, the powerful anti-choice legal group, told The Hill newspaper that it had been providing unspecified “advice” to the Center for Medical Progress for several months before the first video was released, and Sullenger told an interviewer that the conservative legal behemoth Alliance Defending Freedom was also providing legal representation to the group.
To ‘take out’ Planned Parenthood
This anti-choice coalition’s attempt to “take out” Planned Parenthood is about far more than undermining access to abortion, which accounts for just three percent of the services that Planned Parenthood provides.
Calls in Congress to “defund Planned Parenthood” are essentially calls to cut millions of women off from the preventative health services that the organization provides, backed by Title X grants and Medicaid reimbursements. (Federal law prohibits these funds from going toward abortion services.)
The vast majority of services that Planned Parenthood provides are preventative. Planned Parenthood estimates that it helps to prevent over half a million unintended pregnancies per year by providing affordable contraception. It also provides hundreds of thousands of pap tests and breast exams and millions of tests for sexually transmitted infections.
Republicans who want to strip Planned Parenthood of the federal reimbursements it receives for providing these public health services to low-income women claim that they will just direct those funds to other health care providers. This is disingenuous: There are no immediate replacements for Planned Parenthood’s network of 700 clinics serving millions of people throughout the country.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine noted that Planned Parenthood is “the primary provider of women’s health services in certain parts” of her state, adding, “I don’t know how you would ensure that all of the patients of Planned Parenthood could be absorbed by alternative care providers.” The Guttmacher Institute has found that for “four in 10 women obtaining care at family planning centers that specialize in the provision of contraceptive care, that center is their only source of health care.”
The fact that any effort to “defund” Planned Parenthood ultimately hurts women seeking affordable contraception and other reproductive health services is not an unintended side effect. Planned Parenthood has long been a target of the Right, not despite its contraception and sex education services, but because of them.
In 1965, it was Planned Parenthood’s Connecticut director, Estelle Griswold, who brought the Supreme Court case that ultimately struck down restrictions on distributing contraception to married people, which laid the legal groundwork for Roe v. Wade. The 1970 Title X, which funds affordable family planning services through providers like Planned Parenthood, has become a regular punching bag of the Right, and Republicans in Congress are once again trying to zero out its funding.
The fight against access to contraception and legal abortion continue to go hand-in-hand. In response to the latest smear against Planned Parenthood, Alveda King — an official with the Center for Medical Progress ally Priests for Life — simultaneously attacked legal abortion and promoted the wildly unfounded myth that “chemicals and things” in birth control make women infertile.
End legal abortion:
The Center for Medical Progress videos are meant not just to attack Planned Parenthood, but to undermine support for legal abortion using a tactic long familiar to people walking past abortion clinic protests: gruesome images and the villification of abortion providers.
This long-term public opinion game is one that anti-choice groups have yet to succeed in. Just 44 percent of Americans label themselves “pro-life,” and only 24 percent want to overturn the abortion-rights protections in Roe v. Wade.
Anti-choice groups have increasingly attempted to mask their agenda to eliminate women’s access to legal abortion by pushing for incremental restrictions on abortion access. Although these restrictions can appear to be minor, in aggregate they serve to cut off abortion access for low-income women and those in rural areas, while simultaneously setting up legal challenges to Roe.
A reminder of what the total criminalization of abortion might look like for the United States can be seen in Ireland, which prohibits abortion except in dire cases where it is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman. Even in those cases, the system is not always failsafe, as seen in the case of Savita Halappanavar, an woman who died in an Irish hospital after being denied a lifesaving abortion during a miscarriage. An Amnesty International report this year found that since the procedure is not available legally in Ireland, at least 4,000 women and girls travel each year to England and other countries to obtain safe and legal abortion. Women who needed abortions for medical reasons in Ireland reported harrowing experiences as their doctors, afraid of running afoul of the law, waited for their health to deteriorate enough to legally allow the procedure.
As anti-choice activists cut off access to abortion services, some women in the United States face long, expensive journeys to obtain a safe abortion, even as the service remains legal. A Texas anti-choice law that was recently upheld by a federal court threatens to shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, leaving three-quarters of Texas women at least 200 miles from the nearest abortion provider. That means that although abortion is still legal in the United States, a Texas woman might face a journey much longer to obtain an abortion than, say, an Irish woman traveling from Dublin to Liverpool for the same purpose.
These coordinated attacks by anti-choice groups seeking to villify abortion providers aren’t just attempts to convince individual women not to seek abortions. They are part of an effort to provide public-opinion cover for laws that endanger women by cutting off access to a wide range of medical care.