Planned Parenthood Fires Back


Kelsey Knorp
National Beat Reporter

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards took the stand before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 29 to defend the organization’s harvesting of fetal tissue for research purposes.

The controversy began in mid-July, when the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released an undercover video suggesting that the federally funded reproductive health provider profits from the sale of fetal tissue to researchers. Members of the group posed as such researchers for a lunch meeting with Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood. The group has since released both edited and unedited versions of its footage, which has centered the ensuing debate largely around semantic interpretation.

“The outrageous accusations levelled against Planned Parenthood, based on heavily doctored videos, are offensive and categorically untrue,” Richards said. “I realize, though, that the facts have never gotten in the way of these campaigns to block women from health care they need and deserve.”

The allegations ignited widespread mistrust among congressional Republicans regarding the organization’s financial history. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan pointed to past donations, in the amount of $12 million, by the organization’s affiliated PAC and Super PAC, to 2012 Democratic campaigns as evidence that the party is in Planned Parenthood’s pocket. Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz of Utah compounded this concern with the claim that federal dollars empower the organization to raise more independent funds.

“It’s the co-mingling that bothers us,” Chaffetz said. “Every dollar that you get from federal dollars means you don’t necessarily have to allocate it for these particular assets, so that’s what we’re concerned about.”

Chaffetz presented a graph by anti-abortion group Americans United For Life depicting a drastic drop in breast exams and an equally sharp increase in abortions conducted by Planned Parenthood, to which Richards recommended he might check his source. He also questioned Richards’ six-figure salary, which amounts to about around half a million dollars. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings countered with vehemence, claiming that his Republican colleagues would never defund banks like JP Morgan, which has plead guilty to manipulating foreign exchange rates.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York furthermore accused an “extreme wing” of the Republican party of manipulating the situation to unseat Speaker John Boehner and force the government into a shutdown unless its demands are met. “Make no mistake,” she said. “Despite what we hear from the other side, Republicans are doubling down on their war against women.”

Levelled with a broad swath of misconduct accusations, Richards continually insisted that Planned Parenthood’s federal obligations and advocacy efforts have remained separate and operate in accordance with the law. She referenced regular audits by the Department of Health and Human Services conducted to monitor such activities. Not until the final hour of the hearing did discussion return to the accusations that landed the president there in the first place.

The $30-$100 price tag attached to fetal tissue donations, for example, has raised countless conservative eyebrows. Nucatola herself provides this figure and contextualizes it in technical — and fairly graphic — terms describing processes of harvesting different kinds of tissue. She is quite open about the fact that her organization conducts the procedures, and furthermore that it is compensated for the donations it procures as a result.

The devil is in the details (or not, depending which camp you’re in). Per the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, women who undergo abortions can legally consent to tissue donation for research purposes. A section of the law prohibits the exchange of tissue “for valuable consideration affecting state commerce” — or, in plainer English, for profit. Therefore, the first point of political contention considered at the hearing was whether the compensation Planned Parenthood traditionally receives exceeds reasonable reimbursement for the costs of preserving and transporting donations to research institutions.

The other key question in the case revolves around Planned Parenthood’s allocation of approximately half a billion dollars in federal funds each year, $400 million of which comes from Medicaid reimbursements and the remainder from the Title X grant program. Since the mid-seventies, Congress has regularly tacked a piece of legislation known as the Hyde Amendment onto its annual appropriations bills to prevent federally funded abortions, and ensure the procedures are paid for exclusively through out-of-pocket costs.

Abortion services made up just three percent of Planned Parenthood’s operations last year, according to its annual report. However, critics of this figure note that the organization bases this calculation on individual services provided, not number of patients served — patients often receive more than one service — or comparative revenue generated from one service over another. First trimester abortions can cost up to $1,500, according to Planned Parenthood, which could mean the procedures generate between 15 and 35 percent of the organization’s non-government revenue, according to some analysts.

By contrast, Planned Parenthood reported sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment to make up 42 percent of its services, with contraceptives at 34 percent, cancer screening and prevention at nine percent, and 11 percent accounted for by other health services. However, House Republicans who conducted last week’s hearing pointed to those large, federally funded figures as a sign that the organization could be diverting additional revenue to other purposes at the expense of American taxpayers.

What could federal defunding mean for the 37,000 Planned Parenthood patients served by clinics in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura counties? Reports from the federal Department of Health and Human Services indicate that states currently receive 90 percent federal reimbursement for family services covered by Medicaid. Should the feds discontinue this reimbursement, states could still elect to fund Planned Parenthood for themselves. However, with nearly 18 percent of nationwide Medicaid users concentrated in California as of July, it is uncertain whether the state could feasibly undertake that burden.

The committee has subpoenaed all video taken by the Center for Medical Progress, as well as a vast number of financial documents from Richards. Moving forward, jurisdiction on the case may shift to a select congressional subcommittee.

“This is just the most recent in a long line of discredited attacks, the tenth over the last 15 years,” Richards said. “The latest smear campaign is based on efforts by our opponents to entrap our doctors and clinicians into breaking the law, and once again, our opponents failed.”