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Hillary Clinton calls Planned Parenthood videos 'disturbing'

As many Democrats have begun to be less tentative on abortion rights, Hillary Clinton sounds a familiar cautious note.
Secretary Hillary Clinton in Iowa July 27, 2015 (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty).
Secretary Hillary Clinton tours the DART Central Station, before taking questions from journalists, to highlight her climate change policy announcement, in Des Moines, Iowa on July 27, 2015.

Last week, when Hillary Clinton was asked in South Carolina about an anti-abortion group's secret recordings of Planned Parenthood officials, she offered a robust defense of the organization. But in an interview with the New Hampshire Union-Leader, she sounded a more cautious note about the videos, which show high-level Planned Parenthood officials discussing reimbursement rates and procedures for fetal tissue donations. The anti-abortion group behind the videos and its allies claim they show Planned Parenthood broke federal law, giving new fuel to a Republican push to strip the organization of non-abortion-related funding. 

“I have seen pictures from them and obviously find them disturbing,” Clinton told the paper of the videos. “Planned Parenthood is answering questions and will continue to answer questions. I think there are two points to make. One, Planned Parenthood for more than a century has done a lot of really good work for women: cancer screenings, family planning, all kinds of health services. And this raises not questions about Planned Parenthood so much as it raises questions about the whole process, that is, not just involving Planned Parenthood, but many institutions in our country. And if there’s going to be any kind of congressional inquiry, it should look at everything and not just one (organization),” she said.

Related: Planned Parenthood responds to new undercover video

Hours later, at a press conference held by Senate Republicans seeking to defund the organization, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst said, "Now Hillary Clinton is calling these Planned Parenthood images disturbing, and I agree."

Some interpreted Clinton's reference to other institutions as a way to note that many institutions participate in fetal tissue donation programs. The New York Times reported that last year, the National Institutes of Health provided $76 million in grants for medical research on fetal tissue. Conservative commentators claimed she must have been suggesting that other abortion providers be investigated, too. msnbc reached out to the Clinton campaign for clarification. 

Fellow Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, after initially simply noting that he agreed with the apology Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards had offered, issued a fuller-throated statement supporting the organization on Wednesday and condemned efforts to defund it. "The current attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood is part of a long-term smear campaign by people who want to deny women in this country the right to control their own bodies," Sanders said.  

Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Martin O'Malley, has been more tentative than either Clinton or Sanders. A spokeswoman for O'Malley said he opposes defunding the group, and pointed to remarks he recently made to a reporter in New Hampshire. "I haven't seen the videos," O'Malley said then. "And I don't generally make a habit of responding to right-wing videos. I do know that 97% of the work that Planned Parenthood does is about mammograms and preventative health. So that's what I know, but I'll defer to others for commenting on that video and whatever videos they're pumping out there." 

Clinton has a strong record in favor of abortion rights, as did her husband as president, but over the years, both Bill and Hillary Clinton have employed rhetoric that frustrated abortion rights groups. Bill Clinton famously popularized "safe, legal, and rare" to refer to abortion, a formulation that abortion rights activists have criticized for stigmatizing women who have abortions and for taking a preemptively apologetic stance. These activists would prefer the focus be on women having access to both contraception and abortion on their own terms. Indeed, in 2012, "safe, legal and rare" was removed from the Democratic platform. In the two most recent elections, Democrats have sounded a far more confident note on abortion rights than the one the Clintons chose. 

Related: Planned Parenthood president calls video a 'smear campaign'

Faye Wattleton, who was president of Planned Parenthood until 1992, told journalist Rebecca Traister in her book about the 2008 election, Big Girls Don't Cry, that she was hoping to hear from Clinton as a presidential candidate that "unintended pregnancy should be rare and that abortion should be safe and legal.'" 

Running for Senate in 2000, Clinton said she would support a ban on so-called Partial-Birth Abortion -- a term created by anti-abortion activists to refer to a later abortion procedure -- if it has exceptions. "I have said many times that I can support a ban on late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, so long as the health and life of the mother is protected," she said. (Her husband vetoed the law citing the same lack of exception.) A ban without the exceptions, crafted by anti-abortion activists to chip away at Roe v. Wade, eventually drew some Democratic votes in Congress in 1999, including then-Sen. Joe Biden and Sen. Patrick Leahy. It was upheld, 5-4, by the Supreme Court.  

Halfway through her Senate term, in 2005, Clinton gave a controversial speech before family planning professionals that emphasized common ground. She said abortion is "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." She added, "There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances."

Her then-legislative director, Neera Tanden, now president of the Center for American Progress, told the Times then, "Our focus in the speech was to make sure that she still communicated that she was pro-choice -- she doesn't want to undermine that -- but she also thinks we can have some common ground among all sides and make abortion rare." 

"People follow people who have a point of view. She needs to clarify what hers is, and articulate it strongly and without apology," former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt told msnbc on Wednesday. "I don’t think there’s any question that she’s been a staunch, not just a defender of women’s rights, but a proactive advocate of women’s rights. I was in the room when she made her famous Beijing speech. I was mesmerized by it and I think it changed the world in many ways. She’s got a track record. I just think that when candidates get to the firing line of a campaign they get thrown off balance and waffle. That’s not a smart thing.” 

Alex Seitz-Wald contributed reporting.