A string of suspicious incidents at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country has given the organization reason to believe that anti-abortion activists are targeting it in a new organized sting operation.
According to Planned Parenthood spokesperson Chloe Cooney, clinics in at least 11 states have reported two dozen or more "hoax visits" over the past several weeks, in which a woman walks into a clinic, claims to be pregnant and asks a particular pattern of provocative questions about sex-selective abortions, such as how soon she can find out the gender of the fetus, by what means and whether she can schedule an abortion if she's having a girl.
While patient privacy laws prohibit Planned Parenthood from offering specific details about the visits and where they occurred, Cooney told The Huffington Post that the incidents are so unusual and so similar to each other that they have raised concerns among the organization's executives that the visits are being recorded as part of a concerted anti-Planned Parenthood campaign.
"For years opponents of reproductive health and Planned Parenthood have engaged in secret videotaping tactics with fictitious patient scenarios and selective editing in an attempt to promote misinformation about Planned Parenthood and our services," Cooney said. "As with the prior instances, we anticipate that once again this group, likely in coordination with a broad range of anti-abortion leaders, will soon launch a propaganda campaign with the goal of discrediting Planned Parenthood, and, ultimately, restricting women's health."
The most likely group behind the campaign, Planned Parenthood suspects, is anti-abortion activist group Live Action, which has a history of paying actors to walk into Planned Parenthood clinics and act out various controversial scenarios in an attempt to catch the family planning provider's staffers doing something illegal or immoral on tape. A recent operation involved actors posing as pimps and prostitutes engaged in human trafficking and seeking birth control, STD testing and other family planning services. HuffPost's Ryan Grim reported in February 2011 that Live Action heavily edited the videos they gathered to alter the meaning of conversations and falsely imply that Planned Parenthood is complicit in sex trafficking, but conservative lawmakers and media outlets cited the group's videos in numerous subsequent political attacks against the family planning provider.
While Planned Parenthood has no proof that Live Action is behind the current series of encounters, Cooney said the group is the most coordinated in their operations and that the recent string of incidents "follows their pattern exactly."
Kate Bryan, a spokesperson for Live Action, would not confirm whether the group was behind the newest Planned Parenthood sting. "As you can understand, Live Action does not comment on any investigations until after public release," she said.
Spotlighting the issue of sex-selective abortions is an increasingly common tactic that the anti-abortion community has been using lately to turn the "war on women" around on Planned Parenthood, to galvanize social conservatives and to push legislation that would restrict abortion access. "In 2010, more than 9 out of 10 PPFA's services going specifically to pregnant women were abortion," National Right to Life president Carol Tobias wrote in a recent opinion column. "Roughly half of those abortions are performed on unborn girls. That's the real war on women."
Lawmakers on both a state and federal level have also latched onto the issue by introducing legislation that criminalizes doctors who perform abortions based on the race or gender of the fetus, although opponents of those laws say they force doctors into the inappropriate position of investigating a woman's personal motivations for seeking an abortion.
While Planned Parenthood condemns seeking abortions on the basis of the gender of the fetus, Cooney said the provider is also "committed to providing high-quality, confidential, nonjudgmental care to all who come into our health centers." While Planned Parenthood staffers are extensively trained to answer unusual and difficult questions and to refer women to necessary counseling, none of its clinics will deny a woman an abortion based on her reasons for wanting one, except in those states that explicitly prohibit sex-selection abortion (Arizona, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Illinois).
"Decisions about whether to choose adoption, end the pregnancy or to raise a child have to be left up to a woman, her family and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor," Cooney said.
While the problem of sex selection has been widely documented in Southeast Asia, it's unclear how often such gender-motivated abortions happen in the U.S. But Planned Parenthood executives and other experts on the issue acknowledge that they sometimes do.
"The short answer is yes, it does happen here, but not to the same extent as in other countries," said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
The solution to sex selection, however, is not likely to be found in a Planned Parenthood investigation, Yeung said.
"If you've studied the issues and studied the problem of sex selection in a global context, you know that in order to tackle sex selection, you have to address the social and economic root causes of gender preference," she said. "Abortion restrictions are a non-solution, and Planned Parenthood and others who have been providing necessary women's health care for gazillions of years are not the perpetuators of the war on women."