A hearing about abortion in the House Energy and Commerce Committee got heated on Thursday as Democrats accused Republicans of engaging in a “witch hunt” against Planned Parenthood and presenting “lies” as evidence.
The hearing, called “Protecting Infants: Ending Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Providers Who Violate the Law,” discussed two new bills sponsored by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Renee Ellmers (R-MI) that would let states defund Planned Parenthood without any evidence of wrongdoing.
These bills are just the latest Republican response to a series of deceptively edited videos released by the anti-choice front group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) in coordination with some GOP legislators.
“These proposals will have an immediate and chilling effect on access to care,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), calling the hearing a “witch hunt against Planned Parenthood.”
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It’s difficult to truly defund Planned Parenthood in the way that Republicans hope to under current law. About three-quarters of Planned Parenthood’s government funding comes from Medicaid reimbursements, and it is illegal to discriminate against a patient’s chosen Medicaid provider simply because that provider offers abortion care.
The bills from Blackburn and Ellmers hope to get around this problem and let states defund Planned Parenthood for almost any reason. Both bills amend the Social Security Act to let a state defund any health-care provider that the state “suspects” of either performing a “partial-birth abortion” (Ellmers’ bill) or letting a “born-alive infant” die through negligence or intentional killing (Blackburn’s bill).
There is no language in the bills about what sort of suspicion counts, or how an accused provider could appeal a defunding decision.
That means that if an anti-choice governor wanted to kick Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid just because he disagrees with legal abortion, the governor could use CMP’s videos as evidence for his “suspicion” of wrongdoing—even though the videos have been thoroughly discredited by numerous investigators and media outlets.
CMP’s videos suggest without hard evidence that Planned Parenthood routinely performs “partial-birth abortions” and lets infants born alive die. Republicans in Congress have started pushing this narrative in their bill proposals—namely, these two new bills and another bill that passed the House on Friday—and in hearings, as in last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing that featured alleged “abortion survivors,” as two of the four witnesses were called.
Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee released a report last week on how the committee’s investigation so far has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.
“These are bills in search of a problem,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D-WI).
Republicans tried to make the case for the two new bills by suddenly playing clips from the edited Center for Medical Progress videos in the middle of the hearing.
Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) started by playing the clip of a first-person account by Holly O’Donnell, a former tissue procurement technician, of procuring a fetal brain.
This account is not corroborated by any video from Planned Parenthood or any other witnesses, and even O’Donnell does not assert that the fetus was alive at the time. Yet this account has been used by CMP, congressional Republicans, and politicians like 2016 hopeful Carly Fiorina to falsely suggest that Planned Parenthood regularly kills live infants for their body parts.
Democrats were outraged at the playing of the videos.
“Mr. Chairman, I have to object to this,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) said as Pitts started playing a second video. “We don’t have any context for this. What we understand from all of the investigations is that these are manufactured videos, highly edited, selective, and I would object and say you need to run these by the minority so we can provide some context.”
Pitts continued playing the videos to further objections from Democrats and calls for regular order.
“Frankly, this is unprecedented, what you’ve done,” Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) told Pitts.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) pointed out that one of the images of a fetus in that video was in fact a picture of a very premature stillborn infant posted by a grieving mother who did not give CMP permission to use the picture, which DeGette said she found “horrifying” as a mother herself.
Castor called the videos part of a “disturbing pattern” of “manufactured evidence, lies, and a smear campaign.” As another example, she pointed to reports that Florida Gov. Rick Scott doctored a press release about the state’s Planned Parenthood investigation, which turned up nothing.
Democrats pushed Republicans and anti-choice witnesses on the edited videos. Even the supposedly unedited videos that are publicly available, one forensic investigation found, have been substantially cut or altered.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) asked Pitts whether he or any of the other majority members of the committee had possession of the full, unedited videos, since some Republicans admitted to seeing the videos weeks before the general public did. Pitts said the committee is not in possession of the unedited videos, and that they are publicly available.
“You claim these are unedited, although I’m sure the music behind the person isn’t part of the scene,” Schakowsky quipped.
Pitts then became the second committee chair in as many weeks to confer at length with staff before answering a question about CMP. Schakowsky asked whether Republican committee members had received documents from the organization, and Pitts finally replied that the committee’s minority was also present at briefings and had received its own copy of documents.
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) asked Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest about whether she had vetted the authenticity of the “unedited” videos (she said her staff had), and how many state and federal investigations (16 total) had resulted in criminal charges against Planned Parenthood to date.
“Zero,” Kennedy clarified after Yoest replied that the investigations were still ongoing.
Kennedy, a former prosecutor, also grilled Yoest on her repeated claims that Planned Parenthood has the “burden of proof” in these investigations.
“It’s been a while since I was trying cases,” Kennedy said. “Under what theory of criminal law would the burden of proof shift to them to disprove the allegations of a criminal charge?”
After some back and forth, Yoest said, “I wasn’t asserting a legal theory. I was asserting common decency.”
Yoest seemed to falsely claim during the hearing that Planned Parenthood has not defended itself against CMP’s accusations. Planned Parenthood has repeatedly and publicly denied allegations that it profits from fetal tissue donation or that it has broken any laws as CMP continues to roll out heavily edited videos attacking the health care organization.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) asked: “Has anybody from Planned Parenthood disputed what has been made publicly available? In other words, has anybody said, ‘That’s not true, we don’t do that? Has anybody at Planned Parenthood said, ‘We don’t conduct these procedures, we don’t sell these body parts, we don’t utilize this?’”
“No sir, not to my knowledge,” Yoest said.
“So they admit they’re doing it?” Barton said.
“Yes sir,” Yoest said.
Yoest told Rewire after the hearing that she was referring to the allegations that Planned Parenthood “harvests” fetal parts and “sells” them, which she said Planned Parenthood has not actually disputed. Yoest appeared to equate “receiving money” (which is legal for reasonable reimbursement of costs and which is what Planned Parenthood says it does) with “selling,” but acknowledged that Planned Parenthood disagrees with her on whether it “profits.”
It’s not clear what Barton meant by “these procedures,” a phrase he repeated during questioning. He may have meant “partial-birth abortion” (which is not legal) or simply the process of procuring fetal tissue after an abortion (which is legal).
Various Republicans on the committee repeated the talking point, discredited by medical authorities, that community health centers (CHCs) would be able to take on Planned Parenthood’s patients and provide them with the same quality of women’s health care, outside of abortion care.
“Let’s be realistic,” said Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center, the hearing’s only pro-choice witness. “While CHCs have seen growth nationwide since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, they cannot keep up with demand as it is. For every patient served at a CHC, nearly three go without access to primary health care services.”
Planned Parenthood, Waxman noted, serves a disproportionate number of women’s health clients for the number of clinics it has, and in many areas it’s the only safety-net provider available.
DeGette concluded her remarks at the hearing with frustration that when Democrats discuss the total lack of evidence of wrongdoing so far, Republicans counter that the investigation is not yet complete.
“If there is more information that we haven’t been given in order to have this legislative hearing today, I would suggest that the majority should produce it to us,” DeGette said. “Because otherwise all we’re going on is allegation and innuendo.”