WASHINGTON -- The House Republican move to strip federal funds from the nation's most well-known reproductive health care provider as part of its budget last week was the culmination of a multi-year effort that involved parallel action by top Republicans and conservative media operatives playing up the work of a California college student who has been creating surreptitious videos of Planned Parenthood employees for years.
The student, Lila Rose, is the president of an organization called Live Action that pays actors to walk into Planned Parenthood offices with hidden cameras, much as James O'Keefe did to undermine the community-organizing group ACORN. The Live Action stars pretend to be a pimp and a prostitute engaged in human trafficking and looking for birth control, STD testing and abortions. The videos that the organization puts out can be convincing and disturbing -- and in at least two cases were found by Planned Parenthood to be legitimate cause for dismissals -- but thorough, frame-by-frame reviews of the full-length videos show that what is posted on YouTube often bears little relation to what happened in reality, due to heavy editing that alters the meaning of conversations.
Last Friday, the day the House moved to defund Planned Parenthood, Glenn Beck devoted the entirety of his hourlong Fox News show to the organization and brought Rose into the studio to narrate some of her videos -- clips that were spliced to create conversations that never happened. Along with Fox News, the conservative blog Big Government, which played a leading role in promoting the ACORN videos, has been pushing Rose's productions. In a column written for Big Government less than a week before the funding vote, Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, laid out the case against Planned Parenthood.
"Taxpayers deserve accountability, and recent undercover videos taken at Planned Parenthood centers demonstrate the egregious abuse of taxpayer funds. These videos show that Planned Parenthood is willing to use public funds to commit a federal crime," wrote Stearns, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "Thanks to Live Action, a group of young people dedicated to strengthening the culture of life, we learn from undercover videos that Planned Parenthood is all too willing to ignore the law in promoting its services, among them abortion." (Planned Parenthood does not use federal money to pay for abortions, which make up a sliver of its operations; its opponents argue that money is fungible and that any tax dollars going to the organization indirectly subsidize abortions.)
The assault on Planned Parenthood is one part of the movement against abortion rights. House Republicans proposed banning federal funds that cover abortion in cases of rape if the attack was not "forcible," but backed down after a public outcry. In South Dakota, the GOP was pushing legislation that would appear to make it legal to murder an abortion provider; a Georgia law would make miscarriages illegal under certain circumstances; Iowa lawmakers would allow deadly force to protect a fetus; Nebraska, Virginia, Kansas and Pennsylvania lawmakers are all pushing similarly extreme legislation.
Defenders of abortion rights intend to make their stand in the Senate, where abortion rights have always had more allies than in the House. "We've already been talking to our allies in the Senate, both in the Republican party and the Democratic, and we're very hopeful that this horrible bill doesn't become law," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told HuffPost last Friday after the House vote.
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a national Republican leader, cited Rose's videos as justification for an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood on Feb. 2, a day after she released new footage. "The recent release of an undercover video exposing duplicity and potential criminality by an employee of Planned Parenthood is an outrage. Every American should be shocked that an employee of the largest recipient of federal funds under Title X has been recorded aiding and abetting underage sex trafficking," Pence said. "The time to deny any and all funding to Planned Parenthood is now. In the wake of yet another scandal involving Planned Parenthood, I urge Congress to move the Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act to the floor for immediate consideration."
While the late ACORN and Planned Parenthood provide different services to the populations they serve, there is value to the conservative movement in eliminating both, because both offer a genuine, tangible service while also engaging directly in the political process. When people see firsthand what affordable health care or affordable housing mean in practice, they're more likely to support it in principle at the ballot box.
"I'm just telling you, I don't think they have any idea how far they have overreached," Richards said last week. "I think what you saw with Congresswoman [Jackie] Speier last night is very personal evidence of just how far these folks have overreached. And I think the women of America are expressing that, and will express it. This is not an academic, intellectual issue for them."
The same network and the same tactics are being put to use against Planned Parenthood that worked so effectively against ACORN, but the prospect for success is smaller for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, one in five women have visited a Planned Parenthood center at some point to receive health services, dwarfing ACORN's reach into the general population.
"Where do they expect these millions of women who come to our health centers, or who are relying on the national family planning programs, where do you expect them to go? They're not going to disappear," said Richards. "I was stunned today that we put up the vote count -- we let our folks know online -- and within an hour we had 35,000 people who had emailed us."
And unlike ACORN -- and partly thanks to ACORN -- Planned Parenthood is taking the threat with an existential seriousness. In response to Live Action, Planned Parenthood conducted a frame-by-frame analysis of the videos, which it provided to The Huffington Post, and found instances of editing that dramatically alter the meaning of the recorded conversations.
Rose disputes those findings, but acknowledges that some of the videos have been edited. "The videos are not 'doctored.' Check out ALL the full footage and transcripts on our website," Rose wrote in an email to HuffPost. "We have also sent full footage to state and federal authorities. Along with the full footage, Live Action has provided abridged versions of some videos to feature the lowlights, much like news stations incorporating only minutes or seconds of video snippets in their nightly newscast from the original hours of footage originally recorded. The unconscionable actions of Planned Parenthood are the same in the abridged versions as they are in the full footage."
Beck and other opponents of Planned Parenthood say they're frustrated that the mainstream media hasn't given greater attention to Live Action's videos. But the media felt burned by Big Government once, when the site posted a heavily edited video purporting to show so-called "reverse racism" on the part of a Department of Agriculture employee. The full video ended up showing just the opposite, leaving many in the media embarrassed for having rushed to post the video. Similarly, O'Keefe's videos were heavily edited to make it appear as though he and an actor dressed in flamboyant pimp and prostitute clothing when meeting with ACORN staffers, when that turned out not to be true. The New York Times has yet to correct its stories that falsely say otherwise, but, in general, the media now give a moment's thought before running with videos from the same network of activists.
At least two Rose stings have led to Planned Parenthood firing an employee for violating the organization's guidelines, once in New Jersey and once in Indiana, and have produced effective videos. Beck replayed them on his show last Friday. But the types of concerns the media have with previous videos are fully validated in many of Rose's other productions, undermining the more damning videos they do manage to produce.
Take a video made in an Appleton, Wis., Planned Parenthood center. The woman pretending to be pregnant asks: "When does it become a baby?"
"Ah, when you're like seven months pregnant. Or six, seven moths pregnant," the doctor says, before the video jumps straight to him saying: "But you don't wanna wait, because the sooner you do an abortion the easier it is and the quicker it is."
In reality, what the doctor said next was much different, according to the longer version: "Are you sure this is the best thing for you?"
That question doesn't fit with the notion that the doctor was urging her to have an abortion and was spliced from the video, as was the rest of the exchange.
A Birmingham production featuring Rose is similarly misleading and only includes audio. Rose misidentifies a woman as a Planned Parenthood counselor when, according to Planned Parenthood, she is simply a translator. In the omitted portions of the video, the translator repeatedly cautions that she can't give advice.
In the audio, the translator tells Rose: "If you don't have a grandparent or somebody else who has the same last name of you, then you won't be able to get it done." In the part left out, she immediately adds: "Now, that's just me saying that, but you can call back tomorrow and talk to somebody else and see what they suggest you do, but to my knowledge, that's how things work."
Rose follows up. "There is anything else I can do?" she asks.
The translator tells her three more times that she needs parental consent. "You can call back and talk to somebody else tomorrow -- mmkay? -- and see what they say. But as far as I know it's a state law, you have to have a parents consent. Or a legal guardian's consent if you are under the age of 18."
"Is that just the law for here?"
"No, that's the law. Period. Anywhere you go, if you are under the age of 18, you're going to have to have a parent's consent," she says.
"My boyfriend can drive me anywhere," Rose offers, presumably hoping the translator will tell her to drive out of state.
"Mm-hm, yeah, but you have to have a parent's consent. Because if something happens to you and you walk out of here and your parents don't know, they can sue us," she says.
The encounter with the translator provides an insight into the contradiction behind Rose's films. Because she is dealing mostly with front desk volunteers or first round nurses, it is easier to find Planned Parenthood people speaking loosely. The next round of the process -- were Rose actually pregnant and shuffled through -- would put her in front of a counselor and doctor who would be required to do a more thorough investigation. The Birmingham translator, in fact, repeatedly tells Rose that she won't get away with fibbing during her next session and, indeed, Rose has never been able to trick a second-round staffer into breaking any laws.
In February, in the lead up to the vote, Live Action targeted Planned Parenthood facilities in the Bronx, Richmond and elsewhere, with an apparent pimp and prostitute asking for information on drug testing, birth control and abortions. Planned Parenthood immediately referred the visits to the FBI, suspecting something was off. Media Matters took a close look at the Richmond video and found irregularities.
In most of the videos, before the man in the video tells the Planned Parenthood worker that he is involved in "sex work," he asks if the conversation is confidential. Indeed, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA, strictly protects patients' privacy, and fines for violating it can run into the millions. The only exception to the law comes if the medical provider suspects criminal activity, said Roger Evans, senior director of public policy, litigation and law for Planned Parenthood. Under such circumstances, a health care provider can break the confidentiality seal but must still do so with great care, a Planned Parenthood official said. That makes nailing Planned Parenthood to the wall for somehow colluding with human traffickers much tougher than doing so with ACORN, where there is no strict law requiring privacy.
"All healthcare providers must protect patient confidentiality, which is governed by HIPAA and other federal and state laws. This is particularly important in the field of reproductive health services. Accordingly, Planned Parenthood insists on the highest professional standards relating to patient privacy, while adhering to applicable state laws, which vary from state to state, that mandate reports to state agencies in particular circumstances such as child abuse," said Evans. "In situations where there is no mandate or prohibition under applicable law, Planned Parenthood health providers can contact law enforcement or health care officials when abuse or illegal conduct is suspected. In this case, given that adult patients provided information that described sex trafficking involving minors across state lines, Planned Parenthood notified federal authorities."
Beyond the fundamental difficulty of pinning them with the felony, some of the videos are edited with a heavy hand. In an Indianapolis video, the pretend patient appears to ask: "If they find out about I -- us -- pregnant, then they will find out about my boyfriend. And I don't want him to get in trouble."
The Planned Parenthood volunteer responds: "Yes, absolutely."
But in the unedited video, the woman actually asks: "If they find out about I -- us --pregnant, is it confidential?"
The volunteer's response of "Yes, absolutely" seems less objectionable in its true context. Rose has taken the longer video off of her site, but Planned Parenthood had archived and transcribed it.
The patient again says that she doesn't want to get her boyfriend in trouble. "I can understand that. We have laws to follow here in Indiana. And you have to get approval if you're a minor. And we have to follow the laws," says the volunteer.
The fake patient later presses again on the boyfriend issue. "If I set up an appointment, are they going to ask me how old my boyfriend is? 'Cause he told me that if people found out, they would be very mad at him," she says.
"Um, we don't ask anything about the boyfriend," says the volunteer. In the spliced video, the next words out of the volunteer's mouth are: "We don't really care about who, what the age of the boyfriend is."
In the unedited clip, the volunteer says she isn't concerned about the boyfriend because the decision belongs to the woman. "Um, we don't ask anything about the boyfriend. We ask about you. We ask if you're married, if you have other children, and so on and so forth," says the Planned Parenthood volunteer.
Rose promoted the edited video as proof that Planned Parenthood knew that a 13-year-old child was impregnated by a 31-year-old man but continued to counsel the patient. But in the full-length video, it becomes clear that Rose, who is pretending to be pregnant, tells a volunteer that she is 13 and later tells a nurse that her boyfriend is 31. Each person has only one piece of the information, though in the edited tape it appears as though Rose is talking to the same person the entire time. Rose was in fact over 18 at the time of the video, so the nurse would have little reason to suspect statutory rape. At the very end of the longer clip, Rose tells the nurse that she is 13, at which point the video cuts out and the nurse is seen giving no further counseling. An official affiliated with Planned Parenthood said that the nurse suspected that Rose was lying about her age and so ended the conversation. Had Rose gone forward with the process and become an official patient of the center, she would have then been required to show identification, said the official.
At a Milwaukee clinic, Rose claimed to find an employee pushing a woman to have an abortion, saying in an April 2010 press release that the Planned Parenthood staffer "emphasizes the difficulties of adoption [and] urges the woman to obtain an abortion as soon as possible." In fact, the staffer repeatedly counseled the woman to give the decision deep thought and reminded her frequently that she could change her mind up until the end.
"But like I said, even if you're sure now, you could always have your first appointment and change your mind. Nothing's set in stone until that day," says the employee in the full-length video, counseling that was omitted from the edited version. "But it's up to you, if you decide you want to continue with the pregnancy, and, that's why there's that 24-hour waiting period. So, they do an ultrasound and a counseling appointment, they'll answer any questions you have about the procedure and you'll be able to talk with the nurse there. They'll do an ultrasound so you know exactly how far along you are so you know what your options are, and if you decide after that ultrasound you want to continue with the pregnancy you can do so, nothing's set in stone, ya know, and we don't force you either way, it's your decision completely."
The employee's general advice was also left out. "Some people tell you abortion's wrong, some people tell you otherwise, but it's your choice," she says. "That's an issue you can't really be on the fence about. You're either for it or against it. There's no in-between, because there's no other options other than adoption. And I always recommend adoption first, but if you can't do that - if you can't let people know you're pregnant, and you're considering abortion, really sit down and think about it. And this pamphlet would probably be the best to help you out. It's "Unsure About Your Pregnancy" and it has questions in here that you can answer, and you fill this out and it helps you decide what your best option would be."