The panic over Planned Parenthood’s practices of fetal tissue donation may have passed its peak.
Last month, anti-abortion group The Center for Medical Progress (CMP)—led by 26-year-old activist David Daleiden—began releasing a series of undercover videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue for a profit. Planned Parenthood said that the officials were discussing the longstanding legal practice of fetal tissue research and held that “[t]here is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.”
In the past month, the videos have sparked several state and federal investigations into Planned Parenthood. Several Republican presidential candidates have also called for the organization to be defunded on a federal level. But a month later, the federal defunding effort has failed, no state investigations have produced evidence of criminal activity, and the GOP field’s approach to the subject is beginning to splinter.
Last Friday, as Politico reports, the Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to Congress in response to a House investigation, saying that they “know of no violation of these laws in connection with the research done at our agencies.” They added that they have received “assurances” from suppliers and researchers that federal law is being followed.
Of the dozen or more states that have launched probes, the four states that have already completed their investigations—Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and South Dakota—have all cleared Planned Parenthood of any alleged wrongdoing.
Other state investigations are facing significant hurdles. In late July, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton promised that his office was “aggressively investigating” Planned Parenthood. Paxton has since been arrested on unrelated felony charges.
Florida found no fetal tissue donation in the state but did cite three clinics for performing abortions after the state’s definition of the first trimester, which Planned Parenthood says has been arbitrarily shifted by the state since 2006. On Monday, Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against the state to prevent any punitive action.
The trend of fruitless investigations has prompted governors in Washington, New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Virginia to deny calls for probes in their own states. Most recently, Idaho Governor Butch Otter announced last week that his administration would not investigate the state’s Planned Parenthood affiliates.
“[T]here is no evidence a crime has been committed,” he wrote in a letter to the state legislature.
Most of the other states investigating Planned Parenthood are unlikely to produce any evidence considering that the organization’s regional affiliates only facilitate fetal tissue research in three states: California, Washington, and Oregon. No investigations into Planned Parenthood are underway in Washington and Oregon. The California Attorney General’s office is investigating the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) for potential violation of privacy and tax laws.
As states conducted their investigations, the media also learned more about the CMP’s associations with a wide array of extremist actors: vaccine skeptic Theresa Deisher, the militant pro-life organization Operation Rescue, undercover sting activist Lila Rose, and anti-ACORN filmmaker James O’Keefe. RH Reality Check collected accounts from physicians and activists who alleged that David Daleiden and his associates tried to “ply [them] with alcohol” at conferences.
Roll Call also found that some House Republicans had seen the videos weeks before they were released to the public without making any public comment, suggesting some degree of private coordination between the CMP and the GOP.
Despite the CMP’s questionable tactics and a lack of solid evidence, four states—Alabama, Louisiana, Utah, and Arkansas—have moved to terminate Medicaid contracts with Planned Parenthood. The federal government has already warned that this tactic may violate federal law.
Planned Parenthood Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens said in a statement last week: “This campaign by anti-abortion extremists is nothing less than a fraud, intended to deceive the public with patently false claims in order to pursue an extreme political agenda.”
Center for Medical Progress founder David Daleiden told The Daily Beast in an email that “good investigations take time.” He also expressed hope that investigations in states where fetal tissue donation had actually taken place “could lead to criminal convictions.”
But the failure of state investigations to produce evidence is just one indication that the resolve against Planned Parenthood is starting to waver. Among the GOP presidential candidates, anti-Planned Parenthood fever is also beginning to break.
Earlier this month, the Senate fell seven votes short of defunding the organization. And in the following weeks, the GOP candidates’ once-unified sentiment against the women’s health provider has become a muddled mess of gaffes, pitfalls, and shifting stances.
After initially supporting defunding in the wake of the videos, Republican front-runner Donald Trump came out against a total defunding of Planned Parenthood, telling CNN’s New Day last week that “the abortion aspect of it should not be funded by government” but that “they do some things properly and good and that are good for women.”
Title X and the Hyde Amendment already prohibit federal funds from being used on abortion, although the latter allows Medicaid to fund an abortion if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or if it is life-endangering.
Trump has since told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, “I would not fund if they’re doing abortions” but equivocated on whether or not he would support a government shutdown in order to defund the organization.
Jeb Bush has vowed to defund Planned Parenthood as he did in Florida but after saying, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues” and telling the press that he “misspoke,” the subject has become a sensitive one for him to broach. His remarks were widely labeled a “flub” and a “gaffe,” and his attention has since been shifted, however temporarily, to other issues.
Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, currently third behind Trump and Bush in the latest CNN/ORC poll, has been particularly outspoken on the issue but, last week, OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter discovered that he himself had researched tissue taken from two aborted fetuses—one nine weeks, the other 17 weeks—for a 1992 paper.
In response, Carson tried to draw a moral distinction between his research and the practice of fetal tissue donation, saying, “If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it.” Carson’s position has not changed but the revelation about his prior research is bound to become a sore point the longer he stays in the race.
Outside of the winner’s circle, proposed actions against Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers have become unprecedentedly extreme. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee would not rule out using the military to end abortion. He also said last weekend that he would support denying an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim.
Governor Scott Walker and Senator Marco Rubio have both said that they oppose abortion bans with no exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother. For reference, Mitt Romney supported all of these exceptions when he ran for president in 2012.
Abortion rights will undoubtedly continue to be a key issue in the 2016 campaign and the current debate could still trigger a government shutdown in the fall. In several states, Planned Parenthood’s funding is still on the line. But a month after their first video exploded into public consciousness, the CMP’s original allegations are fizzling. The ensuing controversy has shaped the public conversation but, without a smoking gun, its impact could prove short-lived.