WASHINGTON -- After weeks on the defensive over a series of controversial videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood doctors selling fetal tissue after abortions, the nation’s largest family planning provider is aggressively pushing back.
With the help of an outside public relations firm, the group is launching a more proactive media strategy and working to shore up its internal operations and alliances with like-minded progressive groups. In an interview with The Huffington Post, a top official pledged to flip the script on the Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group that secretly filmed Planned Parenthood for three years.
"We are doing anything we can to expose these extremists so they have less power and can't hide and sneak around so easily," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood. "We're working to change the culture of shame and abuse and harassment of women who are seeking reproductive health care, abortion or otherwise."
The strategy won't be enough to stop Senate Republicans from voting to defund Planned Parenthood, which they are set to do next week. Likewise, it won't upend congressional hearings that are likely to happen after the August recess. But Planned Parenthood has already reaped one benefit of the controversy: According to Laguens, fundraising has spiked in the wake of attacks on the group.
“The benefit of having been a women’s health care provider for 99 years, and to being somebody who's been there in the lives of one in five American women, is that when people come after Planned Parenthood, people tend to not like that, and it actually has the opposite effect,” Laguens said. “More people send money, more people ask what they can do to help, more people come to us for health care.”
The group will need the infusion of resources. Both its image and its operational livelihood are at stake.
With the political season hitting the dog days of summer, and with the Center for Medical Progress pledging to release more footage, the story seems likely to keep circulating in the news. And once Congress comes back into session, lawmakers will have to figure out how to fund the government, a question that could have direct bearing on the family planning provider.
Already, congressional Republicans have introduced a stand-alone defunding bill that would move federal money out of Planned Parenthood. With Senate Democrats likely to balk at that and President Barack Obama almost assuredly prepping his veto just in case, conservatives have sought to up the ante. This week, a group of them declared that they won't support any government funding deal that includes money for Planned Parenthood.
In this climate, Planned Parenthood has launched a multipronged response. First and foremost, Laguens says, the group is trying to protect the morale and safety of its own members.
"I think safety and security are top priorities for this organization," she said. "We have decades of abuse and attacks focused on us. We are highly sensitized to this and we are doing everything we can internally to make sure [staffers and employees are] learning."
Beyond defending itself, the group has reprimanded Dr. Deborah Nucatola, who appears in one of the videos, for the tone of her comments that were caught on tape. The group has also sought to increase public understanding of the controversial practice at the heart of the videos, even asking the National Institutes of Health to launch a review of the whole practice of fetal tissue research in order to clear up the “widespread confusion” about the field.
“Politics today has become increasingly partisan and respect for science has seemingly diminished,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, wrote in a letter to the NIH. “But the inflammatory and misleading videos have pushed this issue into the national spotlight, and a thoughtful, careful review by leading medical and ethical experts could do a lot to help the public and policymakers think through this issue and reach informed conclusions.”
Planned Parenthood has also begun soliciting allies in its defense. The group's backers on the Hill have called for an investigation into the potentially illegal activities of the Center for Medical Progress and its ties to the extreme fringes of the anti-abortion movement. In California, state Attorney General Kamela Harris is reviewing whether the Center, a nonprofit based in Irvine, California, violated any laws in posing as a fake company. And on Thursday, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the Center from releasing any more secret footage of the family planning provider.
Planned Parenthood, as its officials note, has had political crises before. And those past experiences certainly offer a blueprint for traversing the current one. But there are still some worrying signs for the group. Even some reliable supporters are hedging their statements, with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton calling the videos "disturbing."
Planned Parenthood insists it has fully complied with the law in donating fetal tissue for medical research. Even so, Richards has apologized for the blunt “tone” doctors used in the videos. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are carefully trying to go after the group in ways that don't seem like overreach. The defunding bill introduced in the Senate calls for the money sent to Planned Parenthood to be redirected to community health centers for women's medical services.
“It’s a simple choice,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement. “Senators can either vote to protect women’s health, or they can vote to protect subsidies for a political group mired in scandal.”
What McConnell didn't mention is that under the Hyde Amendment, Planned Parenthood is already prohibited from using Medicaid reimbursements and Title X family planning funds on abortion. Instead, the federal money helps subsidize things like birth control, Pap tests and sexually transmitted disease treatment for low-income and uninsured patients. In other words, the defunding bill would have no effect on Planned Parenthood's ability to perform abortions, although McConnell is implying that it would.
Laguens said Planned Parenthood will weather this storm, as it did when Congress nearly shut down the government over its funding in 2011 and when the Susan G. Komen breast cancer charity tried to cut ties with it for political reasons in 2012.
“We’re doing all right,” Laguens said. “We are used to a good fight around here.”