Planned Parenthood, already a target of an anti-abortion group alleging illegal activity and congressional Republicans bent on defunding it, has confirmed that hackers have attempted to breach its systems. The extent of Planned Parenthood's actual exposure is not clear, but the group claiming responsibility for the attack has claimed it will post internal emails.
"Today Planned Parenthood has notified the Department of Justice and separately the FBI that extremists who oppose Planned Parenthood's mission and services have launched an attack on our information systems, and have called on the world's most sophisticated hackers to assist them in breaching our systems and threatening the privacy and safety of our staff members," said Dawn Laguens, Executive Vice President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement. "We are working with top leaders in this field to manage these attacks. We treat matters of safety and security with the utmost importance, and are taking every measure possible to mitigate these criminal efforts to undermine our mission and services."
In an incoherent statement on their website, the self-professed hackers said they were "the social justice warriors, seeking to reclaim some sort of lulz for the years and thousands of dollars that Planned Parenthood have wasted and made harvesting your babies."
The reference was to secretly-recorded videos posted over the past two weeks, in which two Planned Parenthood executives discuss fetal tissue donation for medical research with people they believed worked for a tissue procurement agency. In fact, they were speaking to anti-abortion activists who call themselves the Center for Medical Progress, and have promised as many as a dozen such videos to be released weekly.
On Sunday night, the tech news site Daily Dot spoke to an individual claiming to have accessed information such as internal emails, though no such information has yet been released. The group did post email addresses of staff members and what it claimed were passwords.
The hack comes at a particularly challenging moment for the organization, as it defends itself from charges that it broke the law in handling fetal tissue donations. Abortion patients may consent to have fetal tissue donated for use by medical researchers, but federal law forbids profiting from the donation or changing the abortion procedure for that purpose. Opponents of abortion rights, who have long sought to strip Planned Parenthood of the federal funding it receives for contraception and other health services, have charged that the Center for Medical Progress videos suggest illegal activity.
On Sunday, in her first media interview since the video's release, with ABC News, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards vehemently denied any wrongdoing. "I want to make clear that Planned Parenthood has broken no laws," she said Sunday, saying that while the two doctors in the already-released videos have been reprimanded, "I stand behind our clinicians and doctors."
Richards said the video was "highly selectively edited," and that the creators of the video had links to anti-abortion groups who have endorsed or conspired to commit violence against abortion providers. "They have zero credibility," she said.
On Friday, California state attorney general Kamala Harris said she would look into the question of whether the Center for Medical Progress had broken the law in its efforts against Planned Parenthood. Several members of Congress had asked her to do so, citing California's recording privacy laws and allegations that the group misrepresented itself in public filings. “This office will also review any materials filed by the Center for Medical Progress with the Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts to determine whether the organization violated laws including, but not limited to, our registration and reporting requirements," Harris wrote.
Republicans continued on the war path against the organization, but some blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for thwarting an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood. "These videos are horrifying, and yet it saddens me greatly that the Republican leader led the effort to continue the taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood," said Sen. Ted Cruz in a floor speech Sunday. There is a stand-alone bill to defund Planned Parenthood, but it faces a higher bar to passage, requiring 60 votes to proceed. And even if such a bill can make its way out of Congress, the White House has pledged its continuing support for the organization. Two House committees have also pledged investigations.
In the meantime, Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are bracing themselves for the rest of the Center for Medical Progress's videos, which have been released on Tuesday. The Texas Tribune reported that the group appears to have visited a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston, Texas. Texas is one of several states that have announced that they will investigate Planned Parenthood.