Image Credit: Charlotte Cooper

July 24, 2015; ThinkProgress and the New York Times

It is election season, and so Planned Parenthood is in the center of a new political storm. The release by the Center for Medical Progress of tape of senior Planned Parenthood medical officials purportedly discussing the sale of fetal tissue for medical research purposes has opened up a new front in the battle to protect women’s health.

CMP says that it took 30 months of undercover investigation to create “Human Capital,” a web series that it claims integrates “expert interviews, eyewitness accounts, and real-life undercover interactions to tell the story of Planned Parenthood’s commercial exploitation of aborted fetal tissue.” Planned Parenthood, in a statement released after the first installment of the documentary became public, described CMP as “a well-funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services” and the documentary as “a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research.”

True or not, the CMP videos have raised the volume of the ongoing political battle over abortion and made Planned Parenthood a bigger target for those who wish to limit a woman’s right to choose.

The Hill reported last week on a call for the U.S. Attorney General to investigate CMP:

“A group of Democrats led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) sent a letter Wednesday to the Department of Justice arguing the undercover videos from The Center for Medical Progress may have broken federal and state laws… Staffers for the California-based pro-life group posed as buyers for a medical research firm to ask Planned Parenthood about fetal tissue donations—a tactic that the lawmakers say could be illegal.”

In response, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the Department of Justice would “review all of the information and determine what the appropriate steps moving forward would be.”

This followed calls for federal and state investigations of Planned Parenthood by Republican leaders. The New York Times described the flurry of activity that followed the video’s release:

“When an organization monetizes an unborn child—and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video—we must all act,” [Speaker of the House John] Boehner said in a statement. Four senior Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will conduct the investigation, said in a statement that they would ‘get to the bottom of this appalling situation.’ Two Republican governors ordered investigations in their states: Greg Abbott of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is a presidential candidate.”

The stakes of this debate are large. Planned Parenthood is a major provider of medical services to women and plays a key role in efforts to ensure equal access to quality medical care. Politico pulled together this picture of PP’s finances.

“Planned Parenthood receives about $500 million in both federal and state dollars through two major funding streams: from Title X, the network of taxpayer-funded family planning programs, and from Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income Americans. The biggest chunk of the organization’s funding comes from providing basic health services—like birth control consultations, STD testing, and cancer screenings—to people enrolled in Medicaid.”

The current political stalemate at the national level makes it unlikely that efforts in the Senate or the House to defund PP will succeed. But this cannot be said to be true at a state level, where Planned Parenthood was already the target of anti-abortion partisans. Politico noted that “at least eight GOP-controlled states have already responded to the allegations in the recently released videos by going after Planned Parenthood. Some states, like Louisiana, have launched investigations into the group’s activities that will have the immediate impact of preventing new health clinics from being able to open their doors. Other states are renewing their efforts to defund the group.”

The controversy has also entered into the 2016 Presidential race. “Planned Parenthood still remains a very important part of the whole health care delivery system, particularly but not exclusively for poor women,” said presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday. “I strongly believe that we need to make sure it can do that well into the future.” Many of the candidates for the Republican Nomination have also attacked Planned Parenthood based on the CMP documentary. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin drew applause during a campaign stop in South Carolina on Wednesday when he boasted of having defunded Planned Parenthood in his state.

With CMP planning to continue release undercover footage, this issue may not be behind Planned Parenthood any time soon. The stakes are high, especially for the millions of women who depend on PP for basic medical care.—Marty Levine