Planned Parenthood Video Wars: Abortion Empire Strikes Back

The nation’s largest abortion provider is deploying attack ads, threats of lawsuits and a renewed public-relations campaign in response to a series of damaging videos.

Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood
Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood (photo: YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Planned Parenthood is launching a counterattack to defend itself in the wake of increased pressure on its public image and government-funding sources due to a series of undercover videos exposing its abortion business.

Since July 14, the Center for Medical Progress has released eight videos — edited versions, accompanied by full footage and transcripts — centered on Planned Parenthood’s role in procuring fetal tissue and body parts from aborted children to companies that process them for scientific researchers. The videos feature frank discussions with Planned Parenthood officials about the abortion industry almost never seen in public discourse on abortion.

Although a measure provoked by the videos to withdraw $528 million in federal funds failed in an Aug. 3 vote in the Senate — despite being supported by a 53-46 majority that included two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — the nation’s single largest provider of abortions is taking action in hopes of preserving a major source of its income from anticipated repeated efforts by Congress to defund it.

House and Senate congressional committees are investigating whether Planned Parenthood violated any federal laws for its role in procuring tissues from aborted children and whether there is connection with federal money and the Obama administration.

Planned Parenthood has decided to target with an advertising campaign four Republican senators whose seats are up for re-election in 2016: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

The ad buy is six figures, according to Politico. The ads, running in the senators’ respective states, allege they will shut down the government in order to defund the organization and put women’s health at risk.


‘False, Partisan Attack’

Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson told the Register that Planned Parenthood launched a “false, partisan attack” against the pro-life senator, who “strongly opposes shutting down the government.”

“Kelly Ayotte has fought to preserve access to women's health services, voting to redirect federal funding to local community health centers that provide services such as cancer screenings, mammograms and contraceptives,” she said, adding that Ayotte was “widely praised for helping bring Republicans and Democrats together to end the 2013 government shutdown.”

The non-partisan labeled the ad “false” and noted that the other three targeted senators have expressed no position on a government shutdown.

Brian Reisinger, communications director for Ron Johnson for Senate, confirmed that Johnson opposes a government shutdown.

“Ron is also committed to making sure every dollar that goes to women’s health continues to go to women’s health, not organ harvesting,” Reisinger told the Register. “That’s why he supports a full investigation following these disturbing videos and voted to redirect funding toward facilities that we know provide health care in a legal and humane manner.”

Politico also reported that Planned Parenthood ran $290,000 worth of ads in late July in West Virginia, Indiana and Washington, D.C., “targeting key senators whose support for Planned Parenthood was seen as being in jeopardy.” But those ads were unsuccessful in dissuading Manchin and Donnelly, who are both Catholic, from breaking with the pro-Planned Parenthood stance adopted by the rest of the Senate Democratic caucus.

Planned Parenthood did not return a request for comment for this article by publication time.


High Stakes in 2016

The loss of four GOP senators in the 2016 elections could be enough to switch control of the Senate away from the Republicans and a bipartisan pro-life majority.

Both the Susan B. Anthony List and the National Right to Life Committee told the Register that they were organizing support for the targeted senators.

“We’ve been mobilizing our pro-life activists in those four states to thank their senators for standing strong and defunding Planned Parenthood,” said SBA List spokeswoman Mallory Quigley. “We will continue to escalate that support as we’re able.”

Quigley said that Planned Parenthood is miscalculating to think that the vote to defund the organization was a political “liability,” pointing to polling that shows seven out of 10 Americans oppose their taxes going to fund abortion.

“Planned Parenthood is America’s largest abortion business,” she said, “and the more people learn about their profit-driven abortion-centered industry, they’re appalled, and they don’t want to see their taxpayer dollars going to support this organization.”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s 700-plus centers throughout the country depend heavily on government funding. Out of $1.3 billion in revenue in 2014, government funds accounted for $528 million.

“I think they are fighting for their reputation, and anytime a state or a governmental entity tries to take money away from them, that hurts them,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. She added that the financial impact on Planned Parenthood “snowballs” if a corporation withdraws its support. “They’re trying to keep their head above water.”


Battle in the Bayou

Five states have opted to deprive Planned Parenthood of government money, and 13 states are conducting investigations into the abortion giant’s activities.

Such actions can have a dramatic impact on revenue: In New Hampshire, for example, a 3-2 decision from the state’s executive council terminated a $639,000 contract with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, representing one-third of its public funding, and awarded it elsewhere.

In Louisiana, more than $730,000 is on the line for Planned Parenthood after Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered state agencies to cancel Medicaid contracts with the state’s Planned Parenthood centers.

Although no Planned Parenthood centers in the state provide abortions, the centers are part of the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast affiliate whose Houston facility was revealed to have been involved in the fetal tissue-procurement industry via a Center for Medical Progress video.

The organization was also looking to set up an abortion center in New Orleans.

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast filed a lawsuit against the Jindal administration and asked a federal judge to block the order on the basis that canceling the Medicaid contract will adversely affect 5,200 low-income clients on Medicaid seeking services.

Planned Parenthood activists held an Aug. 20 rally in front of the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge.

However, Jindal responded by putting the Planned Parenthood videos on a massive screen on the mansion’s grounds.


More Damage-Control Efforts

After eight videos from the Center for Medical Progress, Planned Parenthood Vice President Dawn Laguens told The Hill, a Washington-based news outlet covering Washington politics, that it is mulling legal action against the group over how it obtained and presented the videos to the public.

“We are considering everything,” she said. “I'm not a lawyer — but everything is on the table, when you look at these videos and the fraud and the conspiracy behind it.”

The Register reached out to CMP for comment, but received none by publication.

Planned Parenthood has also hired the high-powered Washington crisis communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, which Planned Parenthood had previously worked with during the 2012 election cycle, according to Politico.

And Planned Parenthood has renewed a public-relations push on social media, with personal testimonials from patients, doctors or staff, some of which are headlined “Why I Stand With Planned Parenthood” or “Why I Work for Planned Parenthood.”

New polls and social-media analysis confirm that its image is under pressure.

According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 54% of voters supported Planned Parenthood getting federal funding, and 26% opposed it. But when the Center for Medical Progress videos were described to respondents, only 34% of voters said Planned Parenthood should get federal funding, while 39% opposed it.

Also, 44% of those who saw the videos reported more negative views of Planned Parenthood as a result, while 34% said it made no difference.

Planned Parenthood’s image in social media has also slipped, according to an analysis from NetBase, a Silicon Valley-based social-media analytics firm.

The Washington Times reported NetBase found CMP’s videos have turned the social-media conversation against Planned Parenthood’s favor, with 3.5 times as many #DefundPP and #PPSellsBabyParts hashtags as there were #StandwithPP and #SupportPP hashtags on social media.

“In the three months preceding the release of the first video, the ratio of positive to negative comments about PP averaged 4:1,” the NetBase analysis stated. “In the week following the release of the first video, negative comments surpassed positive ones, with a ratio of 3:2.”


National Firestorm

According to Tobias, the real game changer to the national debate on abortion, thanks to the videos, is that they reveal “the gruesome activities taking place in the back room.”

She pointed out that this attention has provoked renewed scrutiny to Planned Parenthood’s claim that abortion only represents 3% of its services — drawing three Pinocchios from Washington Post fact checkers — and has generated public unease among columnists who identify themselves as “pro-choice.”

“We’re seeing from the lips of Planned Parenthood officials what actually is going on behind the scenes,” Tobias said. “They’re losing their respectability in a lot of ways.”

With much of Planned Parenthood’s financial future hinging on the 2016 election, the pro-life leader said that the abortion provider may not appreciate the galvanizing effect that the videos have had on the pro-life movement and how they have affected the national mood as a whole.

“There’s a firestorm moving across the country they are not quite prepared for,” she said. “The pro-lifers nationwide are re-energized, re-dedicated, and while Planned Parenthood is going to fight as hard as they can, I’m not sure they’ve come up against anything quite like this.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.