In undercover film footage of a Planned Parenthood official discussing in graphic detail how to preserve aborted fetal organs for medical research, anti-abortion Republicans hope they've finally found an opening to advance their agenda.
So far, they have a few things working in their favor. For one thing, lawmakers know the video will evoke a strong emotional response. In it, anti-abortion activists posing as biomedical firm representatives wore hidden cameras to show Planned Parenthood's senior medical services director sipping wine while discussing the terms of fetal tissue shipments.
For another, more videos are on the way, according to the Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group responsible for the clip released on July 14. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has directed committee chairmen to convene hearings and launch formal investigations into the matter; additional footage will keep the issue at the forefront.
Still, the past week has shown the challenges politicians — especially Republicans — face in maintaining solid footing in abortion debates. One misstep can derail legislation or a campaign.
Think back to 2013, when House Republicans thought they'd hit a goldmine with Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor sentenced to life in prison for killing three infants after they'd already been born in late-term abortion procedures.
The GOP used the national outcry to push legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks, the point at which some medical professionals argue a fetus can begin to feel pain. Then the bill's sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said something about low rates of pregnancy resulting from rape as an explanation for why the bill didn't contain exception language.
Franks' bill passed the House, but the gaffe fueled Democratic rhetoric on why the GOP is out of touch.
In 2011, separate undercover videos of questionable practices at Planned Parenthood facilities fueled a House vote to defund the organization. But Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who supports access to abortions, refocused the debate when she came to the floor and revealed that she had terminated a pregnancy out of medical necessity.
Controversy over the roll-out of the latest Planned Parenthood video shows early signs of similar derailments.
There are questions about whether the video was edited to create an impression that the Planned Parenthood official was negotiating an illegal sale of fetal tissue.
There's also the issue of who knew what, when.
A House Republican acknowledged he was one of at least two members of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus shown the video nearly a month ago, but had no explanation for why he waited to speak out.
"I don’t know why," Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., told CQ Roll Call in a hallway interview last week. "All I know is I saw it and [CMP] said he was going to post it eventually, so that’s all I know.”
Murphy then attempted to put all of his comments off the record: "This interview didn't happen," he said. Franks, the other member of the caucus who previewed the clip, told CQ Roll Call in an email he didn't take steps immediately because "the hope was to have as much information as possible so that the authorities could be notified effectively before the media."
Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said if it's true members were briefed prior to the video's release, "It was a smart, strategic move on CMP's part to give them a heads up. ... Why would any member who cared about this issue out a whistleblower before their campaign was prepared to be released?"
Planned Parenthood's press office, however, seized on CQ Roll Call's report of members' advanced briefing and Murphy's reluctance to comment, sending a blast email about it to media outlets. Sources inside abortion rights groups said the lag time signaled how much the video's public release was politically motivated.
CMP's founder, David Daleiden, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In addition to Boehner's calls for action, Republicans were already starting last week to hitch their wagon to the anti-Planned Parenthood train.
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., said it is time for Congress to act on her bill to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood, which provides family planning services in addition to abortions: "Now that we are armed with further proof of this agency’s atrocities, Congress must act immediately to pass my legislation ... so that we can cut off its largest stream of federal funding without delay."
Across the Capitol, 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threatened to use procedural tools to offer an amendment to pending legislation — likely a bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund, which runs out of money at the end of July — that would pull Planned Parenthood funding.
"Recent video revelations, involving potentially criminal activity, make it more obvious than ever that this organization has absolutely zero respect for the sanctity of human life," Paul said through his Senate office.
Earlier this year, the House passed another iteration of Franks' 20-week abortion ban bill — it was mired in a separate controversy that roiled GOP women — and companion legislation from a second 2016 presidential hopeful, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., is pending. The video could provide the momentum to push that bill forward.
Going into the 2016 elections, passage through both chambers would send a strong conservative message — even if the reality is that no Democratic president is likely to sign new abortion restrictions into law, no matter how many undercover videos surface.
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