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On first day back, House aims for Planned Parenthood

Will the Republicans shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding?

It was back to school day for the House of Representatives, returning to Washington after the August recess, and the Committee on the Judiciary got right down to the business of trying to defund Planned Parenthood. The first of what is sure to be many hearings on the topic Wednesday was often contentious, but may have been tame compared to what is to come -- a possible government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. 

Republicans are calling for Planned Parenthood to be stripped of the roughly $500 million it receives for women's health services. Defunding the group is a longstanding item on their wish list, but it's been given new fuel by a series of secretly-recorded videos created by anti-abortion activists that show Planned Parenthood employees discussing fetal tissue donation. (As Rep. Trey Gowdy helpfully pointed out, "I was voting to defund Planned Parenthood before those videos ever showed up.") The White House opposes the defunding. 

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Before the hearing even began, several key committee members, including Republican representatives Trey Gowdy, Trent Franks, and Raul Labrador, had signed a Heritage Action letter asking Republican congressional leaders to refuse to pass any bill that maintains Planned Parenthood's funding, tantamount to saying they'll shut down the government over it. The Hill reported that Speaker of the House John Boehner, whose leadership is considered under threat from his right flank, has promised "listening sessions" on Planned Parenthood funding. Anti-abortion groups plan to rally outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday. 

The nearly four-hour hearing did not dwell much on these political realities, except when a few Democrats raised them. "We are careening towards a government shutdown on the issue that’s being addressed here today. And it’s a show trial," complained Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson. The title of the proceedings was “Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation's Largest Abortion Provider." 

No one was there from either Planned Parenthood, which was not invited, nor from the Center for Medical Progress, the group that posed as a fetal tissue procurement company to secretly record Planned Parenthood employees. The committee's called witnesses were two lawyers -- James Bopp, who opposes abortion rights, and Priscilla Smith, who supports them -- testified alongside two "survivors of abortion" who say their mothers tried to abort them late in their pregnancies. There were hours of discussion of what constitutes infanticide, the morality of various abortion procedures, how the line of a viable pregnancy is drawn and by whom, and so on. Franks gave an emotional speech, asking what was "liberating" about "dismembering little babies." 

On what is in the videos themselves, Smith, who is a senior fellow at Yale Law School, was unequivocal: "There’s simply nothing in the tapes that indicates a violation of the fetal tissue law.” 

Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat, went further. "The people who made these videos are liars in a long line of liars," he declared. 

The creators of the videos have alleged that Planned Parenthood illegal profits off the fetal tissue donation to researchers, and that it modifies procedures in order to receive intact specimens. Planned Parenthood denies breaking the law, saying it has only received minimal reimbursements for costs, that its participation in fetal tissue donation is minimal, and that its doctors only occasionally make small "adjustments" rather than procedural modifications. 

Planned Parenthood has also pointed out that according to the group's own timestamps, large chunks of the supposedly "unedited" videos released by the Center for Medical Progress are missing. When Rep. David Cicilline asked Franks if he had seen the full, unedited versions of the tapes, Franks replied that they had looked at what was available online. Pressed on the point, Frank conferred with an unidentified woman. "The answer is we have not received any additional footage," Franks finally said.  

At one point, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner demanded of Smith:  "This is a question of priorities. I’d like to know what your priority is. Planned Parenthood, or feeding hungry children?”

"I think funding Planned Parenthood and the services that it provides is equal to feeding children because what Planned Parenthood does is preserve women’s lives that are the mothers of those children," Smith replied. "It provides contraception ...“ 

Sensenbrenner interjected, “How can they be the mothers of the children when children are aborted through Planned Parenthood?”

Smith responded that many women who go to Planned Parenthood already have children, and that "60% of women obtaining abortions in this country already have at least one child, if not more children.”