With legal victories in Utah and Missouri, it's shaping up to be a not-entirely-terrible week for Planned Parenthood—a rarity for the embattled reproductive health giant after months of bad headlines and political attacks. It's particularly remarkable considering that Tuesday was also the day that Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, was interrogated by House Republicans, and forced to answer questions like, "Do you defend the sale of baby body parts?"
Her testimony was the culmination of a political battle that's been raging since July, when a pro-life activist group released hidden camera videos that purportedly showed a high-ranking Planned Parenthood doctor speaking cavalierly about fetal tissue donations. Pro-life activists—and virtually the entire Republican Party—saw the footage as evidence that Planned Parenthood was harvesting fetal tissue for profit, which is illegal. The story turned into a sort of right-wing Kony 2012, and House Republicans announced a formal investigation into the women's health organization.
By the time Richards finally met face-to-face with her congressional tormenters Tuesday, though, the rhetoric about chopped up " baby body parts," had mostly transformed into a debate about Planned Parenthood's money. Since the videos were released, conservatives have renewed calls to end federal funding for the group, with a cadre of House Republicans threatening to shut down the government if Planned Parenthood isn't cut off.
At the hearing on Tuesday, Republicans honed in on the money issue, demanding Richards account for her organization's "lavish" spending on parties, travel, and, pointedly, political fundraising, and also to explain her own six-figure salary. Planned Parenthood receives roughly $450 million in federal funding, almost all of which comes from Medicaid reimbursements.
"The question before us is: Does this organization—does Planned Parenthood really need a federal subsidy?" asked Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee. "What I don't like, what I don't want to tolerate, what I don't want to become numb to is wasting those taxpayer dollars."
John Duncan of Tennessee was a little more aggressive. "Do you think it's right in a free country to force people to contribute to your organization?" he demanded. "Because that's what you're doing."
Richards responded in kind: "The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood based on heavily doctored videos are offensive and categorically untrue," she told the committee. "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."
After more than four hours of this, it was easy to forget that Republicans haven't actually done anything to limit Planned Parenthood's funding, or to rein in its alleged wrongdoing on the whole fetal tissue thing. Bills to defund the organization have gone nowhere in Congress, and with the shutdown threat off the table as of this week, the abortion debate has been relegated to talk-radio grandstanding and show votes—the subject of endless hearings and "special subcommittee investigations" that aren't likely to amount to anything.
At the state-level, too, Republican attempts to investigate and defund Planned Parenthood Republicans have also faced setbacks. On Tuesday, a judge sided with Planned Parenthood in a suit against Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who had responded to the release of the notorious video footage by trying to unilaterally prohibit state agencies from paying the group's Utah branch. A judge ruled that Herbert can't actually do that sort of thing, and granted what amounts to a temporary restraining order that prevents the state from withholding funds, at least until a more permanent measure is sorted out.
A federal judge in Arkansas issued a similar ruling earlier this month, ordering the state to keep paying Planned Parenthood after the Republican governor abruptly terminated the group's Medicaid contract.
Planned Parenthood also notched a small legal victory this week in Missouri, where state officials had been conducting an investigation into the fetal tissue allegations. The state Attorney General Chris Koster announced Monday that the probe, which had targeted Planned Parenthood's sole Missouri location, did not find any evidence of wrongdoing, and that he won't be filing criminal charges against anyone at the clinic.
In a 47-page report, Koster and his staff detailed a meticulous investigation that included going over 3,500 pages of documents and interviews with multiple medical and lab employees. In the end, though, they came up with nothing. "As a result of our investigation, the Office of the Missouri Attorney General has found no evidence that PPSLR has engaged in unlawful disposal of fetal organs or tissue," the report reads.
Obviously, these victories aren't definitive, nor are they likely to be the last battles that Planned Parenthood wages to protect its funding—and in many cases, its existence—from Republican state legislatures. Lawmakers in both Ohio and Wisconsin have introduced bills to strip Planned Parenthood of both state and local funding, both of which are expected to pass.
At this point, though, it looks like most of these laws will have a hard time standing up in court. The House voted Tuesday night to pass a bill that would make it easier for states to defund women's health groups, by amending a linein the Social Security Act to remove the word "or," but like most bills in the House, this one is not expected to go anywhere.
In the meantime, Planned Parenthood remains stubbornly popular. A new NBC/NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week found that 47 percent of Americans feel positively about the organization, and that a full 61 percent oppose efforts to cut funding for the organization.
And after hours of mansplaining and interrupting Richards on Tuesday, House Republicans set themselves up for another round of accusations that they don't like women. Naturally, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, didn't waste any time pointing this out:
"The condescending tone and constant interruptions of Ms. Richards from Republicans on the panel were simply inappropriate and unacceptable for anyone testifying before Congress," she wrote in a statement following Richards testimony.
"Considering their poor understanding of this issue and what Planned Parenthood means to millions of families, House Republicans and their field of presidential candidates ought to start listening to women, including Ms. Richards, instead of speaking over them."
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