It started July 14 with the release of an undercover video.
A doctor — a Planned Parenthood executive — was talking over lunch in frank detail about the use of fetal organs and tissue from abortions at some of her organization’s clinics.
After that, in quick succession, came calls for investigations from both sides, the release of another video and the promise of more.
One thing, however, is clear.
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Gone are the days when anti-abortion activists relied solely on civil disobedience and street theater to try to restrict abortion.
“Standing on the street doesn’t work. Going to jail doesn’t work. We’ve become smarter,” said Troy Newman, president of Wichita-based Operation Rescue and a consultant on the undercover campaign.
“In the ’90s, we were the ones wearing the orange jumpsuits. We’ve changed tactics. We want to see the other guys wear the orange jumpsuits.”
Only one problem, according to Planned Parenthood: The undercover campaign operation is likely illegal.
An attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Roger Evans, called the tactic “deplorable” and said the first video was selectively edited “to create the impression that Planned Parenthood sells tissue, profits from tissue donation for medical research or violates other laws in this area — which is simply not true.”
So alongside all the other investigations, some in Congress have called for a review of the undercover tactics at the heart of the accusations.
The story was propelled into the headlines nearly two weeks ago with the release of a video depicting Planned Parenthood senior medical director Deborah Nucatola discussing fetal tissue donation with people posing as representatives from a tissue procurement company.
In the video, Nucatola describes the process in detail as she enjoys a salad and sips of wine, saying the reimbursement of costs for a specimen could range from $30 to $100.
The second video shows Mary Gatter, medical director at Planned Parenthood Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley in California, discussing prices and the need to obtain “more whole specimens” by using a “less crunchy technique.”
Using fetal tissue for research is legal as long as it is donated, not sold, by the clinic. Reasonable charges are allowed for companies that extract and transfer the tissue to researchers.
Federal law prohibits medical researchers from having any role in the timing or method of abortion.
The Center for Medical Progress and other abortion opponents say the videos prove that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling the body parts of aborted fetuses and altering the method of the procedure in order to procure better specimens.
“We finally have abortionists off script, not in the National Press Club with their shiny talking points and softball questions,” said Newman, a Center for Medical Progress board member.
In at least eight states — including Missouri and Kansas — congressional leaders and numerous Republican presidential hopefuls have called for investigations into whether Planned Parenthood clinics have violated any laws. A House committee already has launched hearings, and a group of Republican senators has asked the Justice Department to investigate.
In a letter Monday to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America said the organization was working to cooperate with the congressional investigation.
However, Evans wrote, “we need to bring to your attention some significant and disturbing facts about the individuals who have spurred this unfounded controversy, extremists who have spent a decade deceiving the public and making false charges.”
Evans said that while the video gave the impression that all Planned Parenthood affiliates have tissue donation programs, “only a very small number” do.
Evans said anti-abortion activist David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress created Biomax Procurement Services nearly three years ago, holding it out as a legitimate tissue procurement company.
“Biomax then embarked on a campaign of corporate espionage, with Planned Parenthood and its affiliates as its target,” he said.
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, told The Star that Biomax was an exhibitor at two of her organization’s conferences.
“They went to great lengths to be part of our community,” she said. “They even went so far as to deceive the IRS so they could gain access to Planned Parenthood and National Abortion Federation meetings.”
On Tuesday, a group of House Democrats called for an investigation into the anti-abortion activists behind the undercover project. The lawmakers asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and California Attorney General Kamala Harris to examine whether the Center for Medical Progress violated any laws.
Lynch said Wednesday that the Justice Department planned to review all the information surrounding the issue “and determine what steps, if any, to take at the appropriate time.”
The use of undercover tactics in the abortion battle is nothing new. Anti-abortion activists have been employing such strategies for years — everything from dumpster diving to infiltrating clinics to sending out surveys to abortion doctors while purporting to be supporters of abortion rights.
But the recent actions have taken it to a whole new level, observers say, thanks in large part to technology. With the click of a mouse or the tap on a keypad, the information can be instantly spread to thousands, if not millions.
“There’s an instantaneous ability, getting on conference calls with scores of leaders across the country, emailing and social media, setting up a social event Facebook page or getting a message out on Twitter to thousands of people,” said Pat Mahoney, a longtime anti-abortion activist and director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, D.C.
The overall message hasn’t changed, he said — just the method of delivery.
“We are not a centralized, monolithic organization,” he said. “So when individual people are unleashed, with technology the reach has just been amazing. And we’re just sort of at the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming out.”
California secretary of state records show that the Center for Medical Progress is a Sacramento company that filed as a domestic nonprofit corporation on March 7, 2013. It’s also listed as a nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS classifies it under a G92 category, which is for “biomedicine and bioengineering.”
The company it formed, Biomax Procurement Services, was registered with the California secretary of state on Oct. 11, 2013, listing a Norwalk, Calif., address.
Newman said there was nothing illegal about the way the companies were formed.
Newman, of Operation Rescue — which in 1991 staged massive blockades at clinics in Wichita — told The Star that he served as a consultant on the project after Daleiden approached him more than three years ago.
Newman said they decided the group would have to embed itself.
“And so for three years,” Newman said, Daleiden “worked very hard attending the trade shows and building relationships and getting the recordings that we needed.”
Newman said none of that was against the law.
“When you’re trying to bust other people for breaking the law, you’ve got to abide by the law,” he said.
California is what’s called a “two-party consent” state when it comes to recording private conversations, requiring the permission of all parties. Critics say the group broke the law by secretly taping there.
Not so, Newman said: “There has to be the expectation of privacy. It was a crowded restaurant.”
The reasonableness of that expectation would depend on the particular factual circumstances, according to the Digital Media Law Project, a project of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
“Therefore, you cannot necessarily assume that you are in the clear simply because you are in a public place,” according to the center.
Newman said Operation Rescue “provided a little bit of financial support but not much” to Daleiden’s project.
The lunch video of Nucatola was filmed a year ago, Newman said. The video release, he said, was carefully timed.
“We had to wrap this investigation up before the presidential cycle,” he said. “It will definitely become a political issue.”
Mahoney, who helped lead Operation Rescue’s Summer of Mercy protests in Wichita, said he learned the details of the project two weeks ago and helped organize the response.
“Groups knew it was coming down the pike the day before it was released,” he said. “And that’s why, within four hours after the video dropped last week, you were seeing the same hashtags, people responding, petitions going forward, people mobilizing demonstrations.”
Mahoney said it’s often difficult for abortion opponents to present a united front.
“Sometimes we didn’t have a full buy-in on our movement,” he said. “But on this Planned Parenthood exposé, everyone — from the most political arm of the movement to the holding-graphic-signs-in-front-of-abortion-clinics end of the movement to the prayer end of the movement — is united. And that’s why we’re seeing this incredible response.”
The operation has led those on both sides to wonder how Planned Parenthood, an organization that has long been the target of anti-abortion opponents, could have been duped.
“If I were Planned Parenthood, I would be as suspicious as if I were running a drug cartel,” said Glen Halva-Neubauer, a political science professor at Furman University who studies abortion politics. “Why did they trust them in this era in which this organization is under constant assault?”
Warren Hern, director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado and one of a handful of doctors in the country who perform late-term abortions, called the undercover project “another example of a catastrophically successful anti-abortion tactic and maneuver that creates problems of trust for the pro-choice movement with the public.”
“We’re trying to help people who are in extremely difficult circumstances, and this makes it hard for us to deal honestly with people without suspicion,” he said.
Republicans, he said, are now “having seizures of righteous indignation, tripping over themselves to condemn this.”
“It wins elections,” he said. “And unfortunately, this particular incident has delivered us to our enemies.”
Indeed, the “sting” operation sparked an uproar.
Lawmakers and some state officials across the country immediately began calling for investigations, while Planned Parenthood scrambled to respond. Agency president Cecile Richards issued an online statement, saying the allegations were false and the first video was deceptively edited, but also apologizing for what she called Nucatola’s lack of compassion in her comments.
The incident already has become a political quagmire and could rise to the forefront in the presidential election campaigns, but it’s difficult to predict the ultimate effect.
In the abortion battle, Mahoney said, 20 percent of general public is hardcore “pro-life” and 20 percent are hard-core “pro-choice.”
“We are battling over that kind of shifting 60 percent in the middle that don’t want to restrict a woman’s right, feel uncomfortable with late-term abortions,” he said. “It’s that shifting tide that we want to reach out to.
“And that’s why this is a game changer. Because it goes to the group most respected on the pro-choice side and shows them at the very best being cavalier, not caring about women and self-serving, and at the very worst committing illegal practices.”
But Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said she couldn’t disagree more about the effect.
“This is really an incredibly important fight in the court of public opinion between a trusted health care provider going up against organizations that have said their entire raison d’etre is to drive Planned Parenthood out of business, ensure that women cannot get the services that Planned Parenthood provides, and to eradicate safe and legal abortion in the United States,” she said.
“The public will come to see this for what it is.”
Political observers question the depth of the damage.
“I think it’s just another moment in this seemingly endless debate among groups of partisans,” Halva-Neubauer said. “I would say that Planned Parenthood is in a five-setter and they’re down a set and they’ve been broken in the second set. But they will rally their troops and perhaps take the second set.”
He said he doubted the incident would have much effect on public opinion.
“Maybe there’s some bombshell that’s going to come out, maybe some smoking gun,” he said. “But I think in some ways the American public remains skeptical about this kind of evidence.”
The accusation isn’t new
This isn’t the first time Planned Parenthood has been accused of being involved in selling body parts of aborted fetuses. Fifteen years ago the accusation was much more local.
In 2000, the issue made headlines as a result of the revelation of an investigation by Life Dynamics, a Texas anti-abortion group known for its undercover projects targeting abortion providers.
The campaign alleged that fetal tissue extracted at Comprehensive Health, an Overland Park clinic affiliated with Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, was illegally marketed by companies that had contracts with Planned Parenthood.
It led to a congressional investigation, but the inquiry was dropped when a key witness admitted during a hearing that some of his past statements were untrue and that he had been paid thousands of dollars by Life Dynamics. The FBI also investigated but found no wrongdoing.
“We were completely vindicated,” said Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. “And that, just like now, was exposed as a politically motivated opportunity to try to get at abortion access in Missouri and Kansas.”
The case did, however, prompt the passage of legislation requiring that transfers of fetal tissue for research purposes be reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The law also prohibits the receipt of any money other than $25 for reimbursement of transporting, processing, preserving or storing fetal tissue.