WASHINGTON — Most U.S. voters who witnessed Carly Fiorina’s standout performance at the second debate for GOP presidential hopefuls probably believed it drew applause from feminists, but that didn’t happen.
While Fiorina’s winning response to Donald Trump’s remarks about her looks produced a bump in her polling numbers, it also yielded an angry broadside from Gloria Steinem on Facebook.
“Trump’s greatest damage to women was to raise sympathy for Carly Fiorina by attacking her appearance,” Steinem wrote. “What she said about Planned Parenthood was a 100% lie.”
The harsh reaction from Steinem, viewed by many as the grand dame of pro-abortion feminism, may stir surprise in some quarters. But her depiction of Fiorina as a liar has been echoed by Planned Parenthood and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill and in the media.
Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the only woman among a large pool of GOP presidential candidates, has clearly struck a nerve.
‘Determined and Fearless’
Not only has she given wider attention to the existence of undercover videos that appear to show Planned Parenthood profiting from the sale of fetal body parts — an exposé that resulted in a third congressional hearing on Sept. 29 — her pro-life position rejects a central article of faith for feminists like Steinem, who often repeats the quip, “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
“Carly Fiorina has this combination of qualities that make her the woman of the moment when it comes to fighting Planned Parenthood and late-term abortions,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which backs pro-life candidates across the nation.
“She can really speak to what abortion is and isn’t. Either it is the path to women’s liberation — or it isn’t,” Dannenfelser told the Register. “She is completely determined and fearless. She was determined to be a top-tier candidate when no one said she could be, and she did it.”
“That same drive makes her a strong advocate for the pro-life position: She doesn’t have the fear that politicians usually experience when addressing the issue of abortion,” said Dannenfelser.
Fiorina’s unusual blend of leadership skills and vocal pro-life commitment has whipsawed some feminists.
“Carly Fiorina Is the Candidate I Wanted Hillary Clinton to Be,” read the headline for Robin Marty’s recent column on Cosmopolitan.com, which fretted over the Republican’s pro-life advocacy but applauded her bold style.
“Fiorina ran the table on her male counterparts at the Reagan Library presidential debate, calmly and methodically reciting foreign-policy details like a hawk and coldly staring Trump into the ground when he called her ‘beautiful,’” wrote Marty. “Meanwhile, Clinton has kept to tightly controlled public appearances meant to increase her likability factor.”
Clinton’s Version of Feminism
Fiorina’s refusal to endorse other elements of Clinton’s graying brand of feminism has also made waves.
“A feminist is by definition is someone who believes in equal rights,” Clinton said in a recent interview with Lena Dunham that reflected her commitment to a political agenda that seeks to close the pay gap between men and women and improve access to contraception and abortion.
But Fiorina asserts that this “version of feminism isn’t working.” She has argued that “a feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses.”
Jennifer Roback Morse, who leads the Ruth Institute, which seeks to help women and children harmed by the sexual revolution, points to these dueling definitions of feminism and sees a chance to reframe the policy debate on women’s issues.
“The thing that was called ‘feminism’ was about a set of woman who valued her career. Entry into the managerial classes depended on postponement of child bearing or not having any at all,” Morse told the Register.
“Fiorina and the Planned Parenthood videos create a new opportunity for Catholics who value womanhood to say, ‘There is a different path,’” she added. “We could have a perfectly wonderful movement supporting women that does not require them to kill their babies.”
But Fiorina’s leadership on life issues also is being tested. Planned Parenthood and media commentators have challenged the statement she made during the GOP debate that drew Steinem’s ire.
Fiorina had expressed horror at the graphic video image of a failed abortion that resulted in “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’”
After her description of the image was attacked as a “lie,” the website for The Federalist produced a report that clarified the origin of the image, which appeared in one of the undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress that also featured testimony from Holly O’Donnell, a former procurement technician with StemExpress, a California-based tissue-procurement business.
“The baby seen in the footage at the 5:56 mark was indeed taken from inside an abortion clinic, according to the owner of the footage,” said Gregg Cunningham, the executive director of The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, the organization that obtained the footage and provided it to CMP, told The Federalist.
Cunningham’s organization reportedly received the video clip from a source and passed it on to CMP.
“The video clip we provided to CMP depicted an intact delivery abortion. It was filmed at an abortion clinic. It was not a miscarriage,” noted Cunningham.
He told The Federalist that “access agreements forbid the disclosure of any information which might tend to identify the relevant clinics or personnel with whom we work.”
Thus far, Fiorina has opted not to clarify her statement. Instead, she has questioned why her critics have ignored many other disturbing images and statements featured in the CMP videos.
“Interestingly, no one has denied that babies are being butchered for their body parts in Planned Parenthood clinics and elsewhere,” she said during a visit with reporters to a crisis-pregnancy center in Spartanburg, S.C.
The campaign stop gave her a chance to respond to the charges leveled against her. But she also took the opportunity to show how ultrasound images confirm the humanity of an unborn child.
“Liberals and progressives will spend inordinate amounts of time and money protecting fish, frogs and flies,” Fiorina told the 20 reporters who accompanied her, according to an account of the visit in The New York Times.
“They do not think a 17-week-old [unborn child], a 20-week-old, a 24-week-old is worth saving. This ... is hypocrisy, and it goes to the core of the character of our nation.”
It isn’t easy to offer a fresh approach to a polarizing issue like abortion, but Fiorina’s trip to the crisis-pregnancy center shows she is trying to shake things up.
Two days later, Planned Parenthood signaled its displeasure.
On Sept. 28, when Fiorina arrived at a campaign stop in Iowa City, she was met by a group of protesters that backed Planned Parenthood, including some who reportedly were paid by the abortion giant. They chanted slogans and threw condoms as Fiorina tried to address the audience.
Pia de Solenni, a Catholic moral theologian at the Orange County, Calif., campus of the Augustine Institute, said the parallel impact of the undercover videos and Fiorina’s confident pro-life advocacy can help educate voters about alternatives to Planned Parenthood.
“Fiorina has pointed out that there are many other women’s health-care centers that provide care without abortion,” de Solenni told the Register, echoing the message of Republican congressmen who have called for federal funds to be shifted from the abortion provider to the national network of health clinics.
“Planned Parenthood is trying to escape the fact they are the largest abortion provider by focusing on the other services they provide.”
Planned Parenthood Under Fire
Indeed, that was the message presented by Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, during her Sept. 29 testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood based on heavily doctored videos are offensive and categorically untrue. 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,” Richards told the committee.
Meanwhile, Democratic House Committee members sought to defend Planned Parenthood against allegations that its affiliates had violated laws that bar the sale for profit of fetal body parts. The Democrats emphasized that the collection of reasonable fees for the harvesting of fetal body parts for research are legal — two undisputed facts that could stir a deeper reassessment of legal abortion’s corrosive impact on medical ethics.
With the 2016 presidential election over a year away, it is not yet clear whether these unexpected challenges will effectively derail the Democrats’ “war on women” talking points that led many single women to back Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
But the credibility of the abortion provider and its partisan supporters on Capitol Hill has been damaged.
“Mainstream feminists have had to contort themselves to take positions that serve the ends of Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry,” Katie Short, the legal director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which represents the Center for Medical Progress, told the Register.
Short noted that pro-abortion feminists previously refused to condemn China’s one-child policy or oppose domestic legislation that barred sex-selective abortions.
“This agenda may seem hypocritical, but they haven’t made any secret of it,” Short noted.
Now, Fiorina’s candidacy will help expose the internal contradictions within mainstream feminism that have festered for decades. It may also highlight the tendency of movement leaders to dismiss alternative solutions that challenge the Democratic Party’s power base.
Liberal feminists are “not really looking for equal representation — they’re looking for more Democratic women representation,” Katie Packer, a Republican strategist, told The New York Times.
For now, Democrats still believe that support for abortion rights must be a litmus test for candidates seeking national office, and the party continues to defend the flow of federal dollars to Planned Parenthood.
Fiorina has her work cut out for her. And even if she fails to make the final cut in the GOP primaries, she is performing an invaluable service by probing feminist codes and keeping the spotlight on Planned Parenthood.
During a Sept. 27 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked whether “Republicans in Congress should force a government shutdown” over the funding of Planned Parenthood.
Fiorina swiftly reframed the question as a problem for Democrats, not the GOP:
“I believe if the president of the United States and Democrats are willing to stand up and defend what is roughly a $500-million to $600-million line item in a budget,” Fiorina shot back, “then let them explain it to the American people.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.