It was just over a year before an election, and Planned Parenthood was under fire. A series of secret-camera videos, showing employees of the nonprofit group in seemingly damning situations, had been filmed under false pretenses by young anti-abortion activists. State attorneys general were taking notice and Congress was under pressure to defund the organization.
The year was 2011, the video of a supposed sex-trafficking coverup. But the charges went nowhere. By the following year, Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, was sharing a stage with President Barack Obama as he campaigned for re-election. In 2013, having won in part on the strength of appealing to Planned Parenthood supporters, Obama became the first sitting president to speak to the group.
Planned Parenthood, with its status as a health provider to one in five American women combined with its political advocacy, had seemingly shrugged off the attacks and secured its position as a valuable player in Democratic politics.
Now, as Planned Parenthood faces blowback once again from hidden-camera videos, released under strikingly similar circumstances by a group called the Center for Medical Progress, the question is whether the organization can withstand the new set of attacks, and whether its usual political allies will blink.
The latest videos, which feature staff members discussing the little-known issue of fetal tissue donation, are undoubtedly more challenging than the 2011 videos accusing Planned Parenthood of covering up sex trafficking. They feature graphic descriptions of abortion procedures and long interviews with higher-level staff. But so far, allies have either stood by the organization, going on the counteroffensive against the group behind the videos, or held back from entering the fray in either direction, possibly out of concern that there will be more videos to come.
Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Zoe Lofgren, Jerry Nadler, and Yvette Clarke made it clear where they stood when they requested Wednesday that Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her California counterpart Kamala Harris look into whether the group behind the videos broke the law. “This is a new low, even for anti-abortion activists who will stop at nothing in their effort to undermine a woman’s right to choose,” Schakowsky said in a statement. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined in calling for a Department of Justice investigation, according to The Hill.
A representative from Hillary Clinton’s and Martin O’Malley’s campaigns did not return a request for comment, and a spokesman for Bernie Sanders referred msnbc to Sanders’ remarks at a news conference in Iowa on Friday, where he said Richards’ apology for the flippant tone of the first staff member caught on video “was appropriate.” Jim Webb, asked by msnbc about the Planned Parenthood video in an interview last week, said at the time that he was unaware of the controversy.
The Democratic National Committee took a stronger tack. “Planned Parenthood is a trusted, affordable provider for women and men across the country. When Republicans take aim at this organization, they’re making it harder for women and families to get ahead economically, get access to the health care that they need, and lead the healthy lives they deserve,” said Kaylie Hanson, a spokeswoman for the DNC, in a statement.
Like the 2011 videos, the latest secret-camera sting comes at the dawn of another election cycle. They dovetail with the Republican agenda of stripping Planned Parenthood of federal grants for sexual health and contraceptive services, and of banning abortion at 20 weeks – a wish list that so far has been thwarted by a Democratic president.
A similar counter-offensive is underway with the latest Planned Parenthood videos. The group and its allies have pointed to the fact that the Center for Medical Progress, a group that spent nearly three years infiltrating the community of abortion providers, has links to extreme anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue, whose leadership has served time in federal prison for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic and endorsed violence against abortion providers. The Center for Medical Progress has also been accused of having misrepresented itself to the IRS and violating California law. Progressives also point to the group’s coordination with Republican politicians, many of whom saw the videos in advance of their wide release.
“The popularity of Planned Parenthood is exactly why they went to the lengths they went to, with a highly-edited video from a discredited source,” Jessica Mackler, president of the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge, told msnbc.
Jess McIntosh, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, also dismissed the videos, saying they were “not designed to appeal to swing voters or women that Republicans are trying to persuade to come their way. I think they’re designed to gin up the very right wing base.”
On her Twitter feed, McIntosh got personal about her own experience accessing healthcare at Planned Parenthood. ”I think it’s important to remember that Planned Parenthood is first and foremost a healthcare organization, and that’s how women experience them,” she told msnbc.
CREDO, which describes itself as a “progressive activism group and the largest corporate donor to Planned Parenthood, with over $3,000,000 in total donations,” launched a petition drive to push Democrats to stand by the group, which had over 66,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.
Sasha Bruce, senior vice president for campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the videos had unearthed nothing new. “These are heavily edited videos that are part of a very deep, methodical, but ultimately cheap political stunt,” she said. “They’re part of a much bigger pattern of harassment by extremists whose goal is to ban all abortion.”