Planned Parenthood strikes back

Planned Parenthood strikes back
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Planned Parenthood is pulling out all the stops to preserve its federal funding in the face of an aggressive anti-abortion video campaign that shows no signs of slowing down.

With a half-billion dollars at stake, the drip-drip release of secretly recorded footage about Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue program has plunged the group into a fight for its survival.

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As the GOP’s effort to defund it gains momentum, Planned Parenthood is attempting to shift the debate to its opponent’s tactics, hoping to generate outrage while diverting away attention from the topic of fetal tissue recovered from abortions.

The group’s top leaders have sharpened their attacks against the Center for Medical Progress this week, calling the creators of the videos hostile “extremists” who engaged in illegal activity to obtain their footage.

Democrats in Congress are using a similar playbook to galvanize supporters, urging the Department of Justice to focus attention on the anti-abortion group rather than the practices of Planned Parenthood.

“I am concerned they’re not investigating the Center for Medical Progress, which looks like they may have violated laws in doing this kind of undercover investigation,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in an interview Thursday. "I'm waiting to hear from the DOJ. I think that’s the way it should be handled."

Schakowsky has written to both the DOJ and the California Attorney’s General Office urging them to investigate the Center, which she said is looking for “the most repulsive way” to turn the public against Planned Parenthood.

“There’s nothing very pretty about any kind of medical procedure,” the prominent abortion-rights advocate said. “Frankly, a conversation about exactly what happened in heart surgery would probably make people squeamish as well."

Planned Parenthood’s $500 million in federal funding — 40 percent of its total budget — is likely safe while President Obama is in office. But the group could be just one election away from losing that security if Republicans can keep both chambers of Congress and capture the White House.

Nearly all the Republican candidates for the White House have pledged to defund the organization if elected.

Schakowsky said she is bracing to hear the topic come up repeatedly: “I can’t imagine Fox getting through a debate without this coming up.”

The fight is also likely to carry into the fall, with two dozen House Republicans threatening to reject any government funding bill that continues to fund Planned Parenthood, a tactic that could force a government shutdown.

“People take it seriously because if there’s going to be floor votes, that’s a real thing,” a Democratic aide said Thursday.

“Especially if Republicans are going to actually go forward and attempt to shut down the government over this — we’re obviously concerned about where Republicans may try to take this,” the aide said.  

One wild card in the debate is the potential for more secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood's work.

The last two have shown graphic footage of recently aborted fetal parts inside Planned Parenthood clinics. The Center for Medical Progress warns that it has hundreds more hours of footage. Its founder, David Daleiden, did not return requests for comment.

Over the last month, the footage has received attention from the top members of Congress: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE (R-Ky.) called the videos “very disturbing,” while Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (R-Ohio) said he wanted to “vomit” after watching them.

So far, Planned Parenthood has struggled to get ahead of the video controversy, with new footage being released each week.

But the two newest videos may provide an opening. The gruesome content — which shows the actors inside a clinic lab looking at fetal hearts, stomachs and arms — could give Planned Parenthood and its allies the chance to levy new accusations against the Center for Medical Progress, such as patient privacy violations and illegal entry into the buildings.

That approach could also help Planned Parenthood stop the footage's release using the legal system.

One of the group’s partners mentioned in the videos — a medical research company called Stem Express — won a temporary restraining order from a California court Wednesday that prevents the Center for Medical Progress from releasing any footage featuring its officials.

Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Liz Clark said the legal action was entirely separate from its organization.

The new round of attacks is part of Planned Parenthood’s more aggressive response to the videos.

In the past week, the group has shored up support from big-name allies such as the American Civil Liberties Union, released polling that shows it retains public support and had its president, Cecile Richards, appear on one of the most-watched Sunday morning political talk shows.

It also hired SKDKnickerbocker, a top D.C. crisis communications firm, which caused a stir this week when it distributed a memo to news outlets urging them not to use video footage that they argued was obtained by “extremists who entered Planned Parenthood labs under false pretenses violated research protocol, and, worse, violated the privacy of patients involved.”

The group is also getting reinforcements from Capitol Hill.

A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers, including top senators Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE (N.Y.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCDC director to miss fourth hearing because of potential ethics issues Week ahead: Lawmakers near deal on children's health funding Ryan suggests room for bipartisanship on ObamaCare MORE (Wash.), on Thursday began distributing an online “Don’t Defund Planned Parenthood” petition.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also defended the use of fetal tissue for medical research Thursday with a new talking point, arguing that McConnell backed the legislation that legalized funding for fetal tissue donation.

Pelosi also pointed out that Planned Parenthood is asking the National Institutes of Health to conduct an external review of the national practice of fetal tissue donation. If the researchers agree to do so, the move could give a key endorsement to Planned Parenthood's program.

“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,” Richards wrote in the letter.