Over the last three weeks, Planned Parenthood has been the subject of three sting videos that purport to present company officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
The videos, produced by the anti-abortion nonprofit and self-described “citizen journalist” project Center for Medical Progress (CMP), have put Planned Parenthood on the defensive—and the Democratic candidates for president, too. For Democrats, the push against Planned Parenthood is eerily reminiscent of a debate their party started to lose nearly 20 years ago, when abortion opponents used the politics of revulsion to sway public opinion on so-called partial-birth abortion.
In other words, the CMP videos have given pro-lifers plenty of gross-out pull quotes, leaving Democrats in the presidential race struggling to respond.
The first CMP video, released July 14, allegedly shows Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, explaining how abortion providers can conduct the procedure in a way that preserves the tissue. “A lot of people want intact hearts these days,” she says casually, as she picks at a salad, “because they’re looking for specific nodes.” They want lungs, too, she goes on, and “always as many intact livers as possible.”
In the second video, Dr. Mary Gatter, a Planned Parenthood medical director, discusses the practice in uncomfortable detail. Although she comes across less callous than Nucatola, she at one point makes reference to the use of “less crunchy” abortion techniques.
A third video, released Tuesday morning shows, what appears to be a Planned Parenthood physician sorting fetal tissue after an abortion.
Planned Parenthood has maintained repeatedly that the videos depict conversations about the long-standing practice of fetal tissue donation, which is legal under federal law provided that any payments received do not go into Planned Parenthood’s coffers, but cover transportation, processing, and other logistical costs.
But by the time the videos were posted online, it was too late for damage control.
The videos went immediately viral, and nearly every Republican presidential candidate was eager to capitalize on Planned Parenthood’s PR catastrophe. Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker all called for the group’s investigation or defunding, with Paul going so far as to vow to introduce legislation to defund it. (Federal law already dictates that any money allocated to Planned Parenthood cannot go toward abortion.)
But ask a Democratic candidate about the videos, and answers are less than forthcoming. In fact, it’s not even clear if Hillary Clinton and her primary competitors have watched them.
Asked by the New Hampshire Union Leader on Wednesday if she had seen the videos, Clinton responded, “I have seen pictures from them and I obviously find them disturbing.” She stopped short of calling for an investigation, however, saying only that if there were to be a congressional inquiry then “it should look at everything and not just one part of it.”
Clinton’s campaign hasn’t responded to requests for clarification about her statement or questions about what, exactly, she found disturbing or why she hasn’t seen the full videos.
While campaigning in New Hampshire last Sunday, Martin O’Malley told Fox, “I haven’t seen the videos. And I don’t generally make a habit of responding to right-wing videos.”
He added that he would “defer to others for commenting on that video and whatever videos they’re pumping out there.”
Bernie Sanders referred to the videos as being part of a “smear campaign” this week, but his initial comments on the controversy two weeks ago came after he acknowledged to CNN that he had not watched the first video, only read press coverage of it. He said Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards was right to apologize for the “tone” of the videos.
Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee haven’t commented publicly on the videos at all, and their campaigns have yet to respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
When The Free Beacon asked the Sanders, O’Malley, Webb, and Chafee campaigns if they would support investigating Planned Parenthood, the site was met with similar silence.
Considering the history of abortion politics, the reason for this silence seems almost obvious: Democrats fear another 1996.
In 1996, the pro-life community was preparing for what would have been its first major legislative success since the Supreme Court legalized abortion 23 years earlier. President Clinton had vetoed a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion—referred to in the medical community as intact dilation and extraction (IDX), a controversial and now illegal procedure in which a fetus is removed intact by dilating a woman’s cervix—but the House had voted to override him, and Republicans expected the Senate would do the same.
The mood among pro-lifers was triumphant.
“It’s a huge victory,” Ralph Reed, then-director of the Christian Coalition, told The New York Times. “It’s the first time since Roe v. Wade that Congress is poised to outlaw an abortion procedure and the first time the pro-choice side has had to defend the indefensible.”
The Republican-controlled Senate ultimately failed to override Clinton’s veto, but the debate over “partial-birth” abortion had an immediate impact on American public opinion.
According to Gallup historical data, support for legal abortion “under any circumstances” steadily increased following Roe v. Wade, reaching an all-time high of 34 percent in 1992. At the same time, absolute opposition to abortion was on the decline, hitting a historical low of 13 percent in 1993.
But then ’96 happened.
As Congress debated the “partial-birth” abortion ban, public support for legal abortion under all circumstances tumbled back down to 25 percent and, over the next few years, unqualified opposition to abortion crept upward again.
It wasn’t difficult to see why. A New York Times op-ed from September 1996 described the procedure in the most gruesome of terms: “[A] doctor pulls out the baby’s feet first, until the baby’s head is lodged in the birth canal. Then, the doctor forces scissors through the base of the baby’s skull, suctions out the brain, and crushes the skull to make extraction easier.”
One of the major coups for pro-lifers in the CMP campaign is that they now appear to have video of officials like Nucatola describing fetal tissue donation using equally blunt language: “[W]e’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
Back in 1996, Bill Clinton ultimately won re-election despite jabs from the Robert Dole campaign over his veto on the “partial-birth” ban, but the abortion debate would never be the same again. IDX procedures were eventually banned in 2003, with then-Senator Hillary Clinton voting against the ban. When running for Senate in 2000, Clinton said she would only support a ban “so long as the health and life of the mother is protected,” and the 2003 law, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007, lacks a health exception.
Support for legal abortion under any circumstances has increased somewhat since 1996, but it has never quite reached that earlier 34 percent high.
Now, armed with sound bites of Planned Parenthood doctors talking about “crunchy” abortion techniques and video of fetal tissue being sorted, social conservatives, who have been defeated on the issue of gay marriage and marginalized in national political discourse, sense an opportunity to manufacture another 1996. To prevent a repeat, Planned Parenthood has been trying to distract from the videos with information about fetal tissue donation—a task made more difficult by what appear to have been two cyberattacks on its website in the past week.
But history has shown that managing a heated public conversation on abortion is next to impossible. Before IDX procedures were made illegal, they were rare, accounting for about 0.2 percent of abortions performed in the year 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute. But social conservatives latched onto the graphic details of the procedure until it became the epicenter of the abortion debate. Questions of its medical efficacy (many of the women who spoke to President Clinton ahead of his veto had the procedure because their lives were in danger) were largely obscured by detailed descriptions of suction and skull crushing.
With the sting videos—and there are many more to come, although a restraining order issued Tuesday by a Los Angeles court could slow their release—the Center for Medical Progress is making the same strategic move.
The organization has yet to produce hard evidence that Planned Parenthood has violated federal law, but that does not seem to be the group’s primary aim. By describing the practice of fetal tissue donation in gross detail—aided by some regrettable remarks from secretly taped Planned Parenthood officials—pro-lifers are trying to force the pro-choice crowd into the same corner of silence that Democrats found themselves in during the ’96 debate.
As The New York Times reported at the time: “House members who oppose the ban say they have lost ground politically because the particulars of any abortion procedure is something no one who supports abortion rights really wants to talk about.”
Today’s Democratic candidates face a similar predicament: Talk openly about the practice of fetal tissue donation and risk sounding “ghoulish” by associating yourself with grisly medical imagery; refuse to address it and cede ground to abortion opponents who are determined to exploit this imagery to defund Planned Parenthood and pass stringent restrictions on abortion.