Led by Grassley, the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, panel Republicans released a report Tuesday urging the Justice Department to investigate allegations that several medical research companies and Planned Parenthood affiliates illegally sold tissue from aborted fetuses. Planned Parenthood says there is no merit to those allegations and that they’re part of a political effort to damage the group. A dozen states have investigated Planned Parenthood affiliates, and none found evidence of the illegal sale of fetal tissue.
The politics of the issue couldn’t be more divisive: During the presidential race, Hillary Clinton campaigned alongside Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards, while Donald Trump promised to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices and ban abortions after 20 weeks. And the release of controversial hidden-camera footage from the Center for Medical Progress highlighted the practice of using fetal tissue for medical research—galvanizing pro-life activists in their opposition to Planned Parenthood.
The report comes as the Senate preps for the confirmation hearing of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as the next attorney general. If he is confirmed, which is likely given the lack of Republican opposition, he will face high expectations from the pro-life activists who helped propel Trump to a victory—foremost, the expectation that his agency will investigate and prosecute Planned Parenthood.
Trump’s transition team didn’t provide comment on whether Sessions plans to do that if he gets the AG job. But pro-life leaders are confident he will. Tom McClusky, who lobbies members of Congress on abortion issues as the vice president of government affairs at March for Life Action, said he would be astonished if Sessions didn’t open an investigation into Planned Parenthood.
“I’d be shocked if it doesn’t happen,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’d also be shocked if they didn’t find something prosecutable.”
He added that he and his organization want Trump’s DOJ to pick up where the House’s Select Committee on Infant Lives, chaired by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), leaves off.
“The main reason the House of Representatives did it was because the Justice Department was failing to,” McClusky said of Blackburn’s investigation. “If your party is in power, you can’t use the excuse, ‘We’re doing this because the Justice Department dropped the ball.’”
And Kristan Hawkins, who heads Students for Life, said she shares that view.
“There’s no doubt in the pro-life movement where Jeff Sessions stands,” she said. “Sen. Sessions has always been a staunch advocate for the preborn and their moms, and we fully expect that he would do the same as attorney general.”
“We’re looking forward to Sen. Sessions becoming Attorney General Sessions and investigating this,” she added, “and, yes, prosecuting Planned Parenthood for their crimes.”
Grassley’s report—which the committee’s Democrats say is politicized and bogus—will energize pro-lifers in making that case. The report argues that the Justice Department has failed to enforce a 1993 law banning the sale of fetal tissue, rendering it meaningless.
“[A]lthough the law’s ban on buying or selling fetal tissue contains criminal penalties, the Justice Department has never initiated a single prosecution for violating the law since its enactment in 1993,” the report reads.
The report also says the DOJ has only conducted two investigations into possible violation of the law, that it didn’t prosecute in either case, and that it refused to explain to the committee why it declined to prosecute.
In short, the report concludes, people who break this law face “no meaningful risk of prosecution.” It also argues that Planned Parenthood Federation of America may have deliberately ignored potential wrongdoing on the part of its affiliates and may have “altered its own oversight procedures in a way that facilitated the continuation of those affiliates’ practices.” And the report says this may have been a federal crime.
Dana Singiser, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of governmental affairs, said in a statement that those accusations are baseless.
“Planned Parenthood’s standards have always gone above and beyond what the law required,” she said. “As investigation after investigation has shown, Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong. Senator Grassley’s report attempts to paint a nefarious picture of the simple re-formatting of a document—showing once again that there is no actual wrongdoing to point to.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement that the report was part of “a relentless partisan effort to attack and defund a women’s health provider that millions of women across this country depend on each year for basic medical services.”
And Planned Parenthood Federation of America vehemently rejects the report’s conclusions.
“Planned Parenthood has never profited while facilitating its patients’ choice to donate fetal tissue for use in important medical research,” Singiser said.
The Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
If the DOJ, under Sessions’s leadership, investigates Planned Parenthood, it will open a new era in the abortion wars—and Grassley’s report signals that Republicans’ efforts to take on the group are only getting started.