In an often contentious hearing stretching for more than five hours, Planned Parenthood for America President Cecile Richards testified before a House committee Tuesday to answer questions about the group's federal funding for women's health services.
It was her first appearance on Capitol Hill since the release of videos made by anti-abortion activists that feature Planned Parenthood physicians discussing fetal tissue donation. The group that made the videos, the Center for Medical Progress, claims Planned Parenthood broke laws regulating such donations after abortion procedures, including illegally profiting from the transfer of fetal tissue.
"The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood, based on heavily doctored videos, are offensive and categorically untrue," Richards said. The group has repeatedly said it only accepts small sums to cover necessary costs. Less than 1% of Planned Parenthood affiliates currently offer patients the choice of participating in fetal tissue donation, according to a letter Richards sent Congressional leaders.
Tuesday was a day of political theatrics and frustration on all sides, with Richards often being cut off after uttering a word or two. At one point, Richards, said, exasperated, “It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to get the truth here."
Richards faced criticism from Republican members for her six figure salary — a line of inquiry that Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney called “inappropriate and discriminatory." She was condemned for the fact that she considers abortion healthcare, and for having a political action arm that primarily gives to Democrats. Richards was also asked if she defended "the sale of baby body parts." She objected to the characterization.
Richards has apologized for the tone of one of her staff members, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, in the first video released. "The apology you offered is like what criminals do," said Rep. John Duncan. "They’re not sorry about what they’ve done, they’re sorry they got caught."
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is one of four committees investigating the women's health care provider over the videos. Planned Parenthood receives about $528.4 million in federal funding, about 75% of which was reimbursements for direct services to Medicaid patients. Under the Hyde Amendment, none of that funding goes to abortion services, but covers services relating to contraception and sexually-transmitted infections, as well as screening for cervical and breast cancer. In 2013, Planned Parenthood saw 2.7 million women and men.
Several Republican members of the committee repeatedly asked Richards why the organization doesn't provide mammograms. Richards replied that like other women's health service providers, their medical practitioners refer to specialists for mammograms if a breast exam shows a need for it.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat and the ranking member of the committee, repeatedly complained that Republicans hadn't called David Daleiden, who spent three years posing as a tissue procurement company in an effort to catch Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers in breaking the law. Cummings requested the opportunity to question Daleiden in a letter sent Sept. 21. "They don’t want to subject him to the difficult and uncomfortable questions that relate to the actual facts," Cummings said.
Committee chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, insisted that because a court in California has issued a temporary restraining order in a separate legal proceeding, the committee had to wait to see the full videos first. But that action, filed in federal court by the National Abortion Federation, only pertains to videos at that group's convention. It would not preclude the release of full videos that were filmed at Planned Parenthood clinics.
According to a forensic analysis commissioned by Planned Parenthood that points to the group's own time stamps, as much as thirty-minute chunks are missing from the videos, which the Center for Medical Progress has said are bathroom breaks. The group has also released longer versions of the videos, which include several statements from the providers that they were not seeking to profit from the transfer of fetal tissue.
Democrats on the committee repeatedly stressed that the majority of Planned Parenthood funds come from reimbursements after Medicaid patients choose to have healthcare services there. "They makes it sound as if the federal government writes a check to Planned Parenthood each year," said Rep. Brenda Lawrence.
It is currently illegal for states to discriminate against qualified healthcare providers, presenting a legal hurdle for states that want to defund Planned Parenthood, but a bill has been introduced in the House to change that. It would allow states to deny Medicaid funding to any "individual or entity based on the individual’s or entity’s involvement in abortions."
Richards said Tuesday, "I don't think a provider should be discriminated against for providing a legal service."
Throughout the hearing, it was easy to forget that abortion, while mostly not covered by federal funding, is in fact legal. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican, called abortion "aberrant services in the view of many taxpayers." Rep. Steve Russell, another Republican, declared, "We can carve up a child and call it a choice ... but we cannot escape accountability before the Creator of life."
Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat of Vermont, may have had bipartisan support when he lamented Tuesday, "We're having an argument that's never going to end, about abortion."
During Richards’ testimony on Tuesday, Planned Parenthood gathered supporters in what it calls National Pink Out Day, which featured rallies in more than 90 cities and a social media campaign using the hashtags #standwithPP and #pinkout.