See more of our coverage on the effects of the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.
Sweat streaming into his cropped beard, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney stood alone on the steps of the United States Capitol on a recent Monday, beneath the sun’s noontime blaze, and livestreamed himself praying to God that the U.S. Senate would, later that day, vote to discontinue all federal funding to Planned Parenthood.
Prompted by a series of surreptitiously recorded videos produced by the California-based Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and deceptively edited to suggest that Planned Parenthood illegally harvests and sells aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, the vote failed. But Mahoney, a Presbyterian minister and longtime opponent of abortion rights, told Rewire that he believes this video series will continue to influence the abortion debate at the national level, and hopes it will devastate Planned Parenthood’s reputation.
Meanwhile, Mahoney is leading a much more direct, grassroots campaign against the nonprofit network of reproductive-health centers, by trying to halt construction of a new Planned Parenthood facility in Washington, D.C.
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Sitting in the shadows of CMP’s high-profile video campaign is a lesser-known strategy abortion opponents have employed for decades—to cut off access to abortion directly at the source by trying to shut down existing Planned Parenthood abortion clinics and prevent new ones from opening. It’s just one element of the multipronged effort to curb abortion access and ultimately criminalize the procedure.
And the new videos represent a powerful messaging tool for grassroots campaigns like Mahoney’s.
“Certainly the videos give us more information to give out to the community and to press on why we wouldn’t want a Planned Parenthood in our neighborhoods and in our city,” said Mahoney, who is close friends with the leaders of CMP and who has been working to impede abortion access for nearly four decades.
A former national media director of the controversial anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, Mahoney now directs the Christian Defense Coalition and is the lead pastor of Church on the Hill D.C., a Christian activist group headquartered across the street from the Capitol. Last month, he helped launch a campaign called Abortion-Free DC after learning of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s plans to erect a new health center that will provide abortions in addition to other reproductive and sexual health services. The Planned Parenthood affiliate shuttered an older clinic (which did not provide abortions) last year and sold its 40-year-old downtown clinic in July as part of its plans to center its services at a larger, revamped facility.
Abortion-Free DC is a loose network of local activists (Mahoney said about 10 to 15 people have been showing up to planning meetings) who are currently employing a range of tactics to stall the construction of the new facility, from praying and staging protests in front of the building site, to using the new CMP videos to try to convince construction workers to abandon their posts. They’re mining D.C.’s building and zoning codebook, hoping to find Planned Parenthood in violation of any regulations. Mahoney said the group intends to carry out these actions “prayerfully, peacefully, and publicly.” On August 22, they are planning a prayer vigil at the building site, and starting September 23, the group says it intends to stage 40 days and nights of prayer and protest in front of the building site as part of the national 40 Days for Life campaign that targets abortion clinics.
While the efforts of Abortion-Free DC are local in scale, the use of these strategies and techniques are national.
At the National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans last month, Saint John’s Seminary theology professor Angela Franks, a socially conservative author and activist, outlined the strategies that she used to stymie the construction of a new Planned Parenthood facility in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 2005. Upon learning of the plans for the new clinic, Franks also formed a local coalition—which she dubbed Planned Parenthood Hurts Girls—to help orchestrate boycotts and breed hostility against Planned Parenthood. Franks’ conference session was called “Fighting Goliath: How to Take Aim at Planned Parenthood.”
More recently, abortion opponents in New Orleans successfully stalled a new Planned Parenthood facility. In addition to frequent protests by abortion foes, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond threatened contractors working with Planned Parenthood that the Archdiocese of New Orleans would deny them future building contracts for churches and schools. And the Louisiana state health department initially denied Planned Parenthood’s operating license application based on a new law targeting abortion clinics. On appeal, the state recently cleared the way for Planned Parenthood to begin construction. (Soon after, someone not yet identified attempted to set the construction site on fire.)
In D.C., Mahoney’s group is attempting to use many of the same techniques to stop the construction of the new clinic.
As in Louisiana, Mahoney’s group is seeking help from the Catholic Church. Abortion-Free DC has asked the Catholic Archdiocese of Arlington to lean on a general contractor working on the site who also sits on a Catholic high school board in Arlington. Mahoney said the group is preparing to send an open letter this week asking the archdiocese to threaten to deny future contracts with anyone building the health center. When contacted, the contractor did not respond to our questions or confirm these details. Archdiocese spokeswoman Elise Italiano would not confirm these discussions with Abortion-Free DC or the contractor in question, but said in an email said that “the diocese is always disappointed to learn that any business has partnered with Planned Parenthood.”
“Because we remain committed to the protection of all life, we oppose all efforts that undermine that principle; instead, we support programs which offer a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy the medical, financial, and material resources she needs during her pregnancy and after her child’s birth,” Italiano said.
The protesters are also trying to sway public opinion by painting Planned Parenthood as insensitive to the needs of schoolchildren. The new facility is located in a commercial and residential neighborhood in Northeast D.C., next door to Two Rivers Public Charter School’s elementary campus and across the street from Two Rivers’ middle-school campus.
“They know that people demonstrate, that people come out there with signs,” said Mahoney. “Why would Planned Parenthood be so insensitive to create this kind of turmoil in a neighborhood?”
Those “people” turn out to include Mahoney himself: Prayerful demonstration is something in which the reverend takes considerable pride. When asked to provide Rewire with a picture to accompany this story, Mahoney supplied an image of himself getting arrested in June 2010, after he trespassed at the former Planned Parenthood site in Northwest D.C. He was arrested (but not prosecuted) after praying on the clinic’s sidewalk entryway, shortly after the center had erected a short fence in front of the clinic to keep activists at bay.
This was not the only time Mahoney has been arrested in his three decades of protesting at that facility, but he noted that his form of protest is to pray and that he himself has never held signs in front of an abortion clinic. In fact, he said he tries to discourage activists from using graphic signs.
Indeed, Dr. Laura Meyers, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., said she was very familiar with the frequent protesters—including Mahoney—at the old center.
“The irony is stunning,” she told Rewire in an interview, when told that Mahoney had criticized Planned Parenthood for potentially subjecting school children to protesters at the new facility.
Meyers said the affiliate’s board has been planning for years to relocate and expand services at a bigger clinic, and that they purchased the new building two years ago. She said the affiliate is working to complete construction and reopen in the District in early 2016 and that they have discussed plans for the center with the Two Rivers schools and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
“We’re really excited about being embedded in that community, and our goal is to be great community neighbors, for both the charters and others living in the neighborhood,” Meyers said. “We provide preventive health care to thousands of men and women, and we are striving to be great community partners.”
Mahoney said his group is also exploring regulatory avenues to shutter or stall the building’s construction, but an initial strike fell flat.
Last month, activists filed a complaint with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, claiming Planned Parenthood was violating the District’s building rules by not properly displaying a permit sign. However, upon inspecting the property, inspectors determined that Planned Parenthood is complying with all building regulations, the department’s legislative and public affairs director Matt Orlins told Rewire.
Of course, even if Abortion-Free DC were to succeed in stopping the new Planned Parenthood, the District would not actually be “abortion-free,” as there are a few independent abortion providers there.
But for longtime abortion foes, the opportunity to block the Planned Parenthood clinic in D.C. is symbolic.
And the group is leveraging the recent attack videos produced by the Center for Medical Progress, whose co-founder is Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, where Mahoney worked before Newman became president of the organization.
Mahoney said one of the Abortion-Free DC activists has shown some of the videos to construction workers and repeated CMP’s allegations that Planned Parenthood unlawfully sells fetal tissue for profit. None of the unedited videos actually support this allegation, and the numerous state investigations into those accusations have so far returned no evidence of wrongdoing.
Mahoney dismissed criticism of CMP’s work, which he said his friend, Newman, revealed to him two weeks before it launched. He argued that critics’ claims that the videos were deceptively edited are baseless because the group has released the full unedited footage.
But Mahoney admitted that he has not watched most of the unedited videos, save for the first one that was released in mid-July.
“I haven’t bothered looking at any of the other unedited tapes, because it’s just so long and I trust the integrity of David Daleiden,” he said, referring to CMP’s chief executive officer.
Ultimately, though, Mahoney and his fellow Abortion-Free DC activists believe the true power in the videos is not in their accusations that Planned Parenthood might have broken federal law.
After a recent Friday-night strategy meeting, Mahoney and seven of the Abortion-Free DC activists gathered for drinks at the Dubliner, an Irish pub near the Capitol. Many of the activists told Rewire that the aspects of the videos that move them and are likely to sway people who generally support abortion rights are the graphic images of discernible fetal body parts and the seemingly casual manner in which some of the Planned Parenthood doctors and directors talk about fetal remains and the donation thereof.
Clutching her 2-month-old daughter, Michele Hendrickson explained the anger she felt watching the first Planned Parenthood video, wherein Planned Parenthood senior medical director Deborah Nucatola tells undercover CMP operatives that processing fees for fetal-tissue donation range from $30 to $100. In the edited version, though, she appears to be saying that affiliates sell specimens for about $30 to $100 each.
“Two months ago, her liver would be worth $30,” said Hendrickson, referring to her daughter, Lucy. Hendrickson serves as the capital regional coordinator for Students for Life of America, which advocates against abortion on college campuses. “Two months ago her body parts were worth something that were just casually discussed. I’m totally fine with calling that heartless.”
The videos contain no evidence of abortions occurring that close to viability, but rather, of predominantly first- and second-trimester procedures, including for fetuses with fatal anomalies and for victims of sexual assault.
At the end of the day, the Abortion-Free DC activists realize their effort to stop the new Planned Parenthood clinic is “a serious uphill battle,” Mahoney said. But he said they are committed to fighting regardless of what happens.
And Planned Parenthood is too. The D.C. affiliate’s director, Dr. Laura Meyers, said she is not fazed by these dedicated efforts to block construction of the new health center.
“Regardless of what swirls around Planned Parenthood, we continue to see patients; we continue to provide care no matter what,” Meyers said. “And we will build that building.”