World

American abortion debate reignited by secret videos

Abortion is a longtime source of division in the U.S. but in recent weeks it's been front and centre due to a series of secret videos filmed undercover by anti-abortion activists. They claim Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal tissue, which the organization denies.

Planned Parenthood denies claim by anti-abortion activists that it's selling fetal tissue

Opponents and supporters of Planned Parenthood demonstrate Tuesday in Philadelphia. Anti-abortion activists are calling for an end to government funding for the non-profit reproductive services organization. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

A series of secretly recorded videos that allege Planned Parenthood is involved in the sale of "baby body parts" have quickly ramped up the debate about abortion in the U.S. and put the organization at risk, once again, of losing millions of dollars in government funding.

Planned Parenthood is used to fending off attacks from anti-abortion critics but this latest round has successfully generated enough controversy that Congress will debate a measure next week aimed at cutting off financial aid. It could also launch investigations into the group's practices.

Significant in the current controversy is a new tactic used by the people behind the videos. They call themselves citizen journalists from an anti-abortion group called The Center for Medical Progress. They posed as representatives of a fake company seeking to procure fetal tissue and met undercover with Planned Parenthood staff.

Fetal tissue is used by scientists and researchers and there are companies that act as middlemen between abortion providers and the researchers to collect, store and transfer it.

Three videos have been released so far that accuse Planned Parenthood of illegally selling the tissue for profit. One of them contains footage from a Planned Parenthood facility where the fake buyer is shown organs and tissue from a recently performed abortion.

Opponents have previously accused Planned Parenthood of profiting from abortions but the strategy now is to showcase the use of fetal tissue in order to grab the attention of the public and of the politicians in Washington.

The approach paid off and now Planned Parenthood is under fire in a way it hasn't been in a long time. It has stated it has done nothing illegal and does not provide fetal tissue for profit. The tissue is donated at the woman's request only, it is not routinely kept after a procedure and, according to Planned Parenthood, any money that is exchanged is only to cover the costs associated with the process, and that is legal. The tissue donation program is also only available in a handful of states, not at clinics nationwide, it says.

Candidates asked to weigh in

The way the controversy is playing out shows just how fierce the abortion debate can still be in the U.S. and how advocates on both sides of it are trying to sway public opinion.

The Center for Medical Progress didn't release the videos all at once; they are trickling them out over the course of several weeks and they say more are coming. This has ensured continued media coverage and kept the debate going.

The timing of the videos also means the abortion debate is staying in the news because the Republicans and Democrats running for president are being asked to weigh in on the controversy. If they weren't already, their views about Planned Parenthood and what it does are going on the record now for voters to hear.
Kathy Calver cheers Tuesday for a speaker as she and other anti-abortion activists rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol in Austin to condemn the use in medical research of tissue samples obtained from aborted fetuses. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Those long opposed to Planned Parenthood's work are using the story as a launching point to try to get Congress to cut off its funding. The organization gets about $500 million US per year but, by law, none of that money can be used for abortion services, only for the other health care Planned Parenthood provides. Its clinics across the U.S. provide cancer screening, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, birth control and other reproductive health services.

Planned Parenthood argues that cutting off its funding will deprive many low- and middle-income women of important health care, especially in rural and underserved communities.

Republicans are pushing the defunding bill, the likes of which haven't appeared on Capitol Hill since 2011, and a vote is expected in the Senate next week.

'Extremists will not win'

The story also prompted hackers to attack Planned Parenthood's website, forcing it to shut down. That also generated more stories about the abortion provider. The staff in the videos have also apparently received death threats.

Planned Parenthood says it was caught by surprise with the videos, but its response has also been organized and strategic.

It is using a public relations firm to help with its defence and has used a variety of tactics to fight back. Its leaders are giving media interviews, president Cecile Richards, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, and it commissioned a public opinion poll showing support for its work.
Supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood demonstrate outside a facility in Columbia, Mo. (Don Shrubshell/Columbia Daily Tribune/Associated Press)

"The extremists will not win this battle," Richards wrote in the Post. She called the video campaign "a new low" and urged Americans and Congress to reject the false claims she says are being made about her organization.

The group also turned to the federal government's top health scientists. It has requested that the National Institutes of Health convene an expert panel on fetal tissue research. Last year, the NIH funded more than $70 million worth of research using fetal tissue, which can be obtained through miscarriages or abortions.

Planned Parenthood's allies are also fighting back. Following a filing by the National Abortion Federation, a federal judge in San Francisco on Friday blocked the release of any recordings from the Center for Medical Progress, which the NAF says were illegally obtained at its meetings. 

The NAF says the anti-abortion activists created fake identities and went to the extreme length of creating a fake company to gain access to their meetings. They also signed agreements meant to protect attendees' privacy that they had no intention of honouring, the NAF says.

With more videos potentially still to come, a vote in Congress and ongoing campaigns for president, the abortion debate could remain front and centre in the U.S. for the rest of the summer and maybe into the fall. Some Republicans have threatened to force a government shutdown if they don't get their way on the defunding vote.

With files from Associated Press

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