WASHINGTON — The controversy that erupted last month after a series of secretly recorded videos were released showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue donation came to a head Monday evening with a failed Senate vote to defund the organization.
Conservative lawmakers championed but ultimately failed to forward legislation — in a 53-to-46 vote — that would have stripped the organization of $528 million of federal funding. Sixty votes were needed to end debate on the bill and advance to a final vote.
Some GOP legislators have vowed, however, to keep up the fight. They are calling for the defunding provision to be attached to a spending bill needed to keep the government open later this fall — the same tactic that has been unsuccessfully attempted by Republicans in recent years to repeal the Affordable Care Act and stymie President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
The latest episode in the nation’s decades-old battle over abortion rights began when activists with an anti-abortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, posed as middlemen interested in procuring fetal tissue from abortion procedures and taped their conversations with senior Planned Parenthood officials.
The activists accuse Planned Parenthood employees of “selling” tissue and organs for profit, in violation of federal law. Planned Parenthood maintains that the videos have been selectively edited and that it only receives reimbursement for medical expenses when fetal tissue is donated to research organizations, in keeping with the law and with the consent of the patient.
Republicans quickly seized on the videos to denounce Planned Parenthood, a frequent target of abortion opponents who have long sought to yank taxpayer funds from the organization, despite the fact that no federal funds can be directly used to provide abortions under current law.
“This is human life, and Planned Parenthood, the nation’s single largest provider of abortion services, is harvesting baby body parts,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who sponsored the Senate bill, said on the Senate floor Monday. “The American people are shocked and horrified by the utter lack of compassion and disregard shown by Planned Parenthood for these women and their babies. This gruesome footage echoes in our collective conscience as it goes against the very principles that we stand for.”
The dispute may be burning hotter as a presidential election year draws closer and many Republican candidates in a crowded field are trying to stand out among social conservatives, whose votes they will need to win the GOP nomination.
“A lot of people, even a lot of pro-choice people, are upset by these videos,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, told CNN on Sunday. “I think most Americans don't want their tax dollars going to this. So I think when something is so morally repugnant to so many people, why should tax dollars go to this?”
Paul, who has also called on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to return all donations from Planned Parenthood over the weekend, stopped short nonetheless of endorsing a government shutdown over funding.
“I support any legislation that will defund Planned Parenthood. But I don't think you start out with your objective to shut down government,” he said.
Paul and two other GOP candidates — Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — voted in favor of the bill.
Supporters of Planned Parenthood say the attacks have the potential to backfire, particularly with women voters, who favored Democrats in the 2012 elections by 55 percent after similar attacks on the organization the year prior.
Planned Parenthood also provides health care for 3 million Americans a year, offering cancer screenings, contraceptives and medical treatment, including for low-income women who have few other health care alternatives. According to the organization’s 2014-2015 annual report, abortions constitute 3 percent of services provided by Planned Parenthood branches.
Jess McIntosh — a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, a political advocacy organization supporting pro-abortion rights women candidates — predicted that Republicans’ vote to strip funding would come back to haunt them.
“Planned Parenthood is first and foremost a health care provider and that’s how women in America know them,” she said. “Because that is American women’s lived experience with Planned Parenthood. These attacks continue to backfire, and things go quite poorly for Republicans leading them. … It’s not about anything other than ginning up the base with something, anything.”
Carole Joffe, a professor at the University of California San Francisco who specializes in reproductive health politics, said Planned Parenthood has been a convenient target of conservatives since the 1970s, crystallizing anxieties about women’s liberation and loosening of sexual mores.
She noted, however, that with Democrats now fully embracing Planned Parenthood and most Americans staunchly in favor of access to contraceptives, the politics of the issue were slowly changing.
“It’s a very interesting moment, because it’s a big gamble. The videos have gotten a lot of attention, and various of the Republican candidates have fallen all over themselves trying to denounce Planned Parenthood,” Joffe said. “But it’s an open question how much this will get them.”