Do Planned Parenthood 'sting' videos depict a sex-trafficking crime?

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli blasted Planned Parenthood after 'sting' videos showed employees appearing to aid a man posing as a sex trafficker. But prosecution would be hard.

Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP/File
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks about his challenge against President Obama's health-care law Dec. 13 in Richmond, Va. Cuccinelli criticized Planned Parenthood on Fox News Sunday.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said Sunday that a video "sting" by an antiabortion group shows Planned Parenthood shows an "open willingness to participate" in the sex trafficking of minors.

The comments on Fox News Sunday came as state investigators in Virginia and New Jersey investigate the taxpayer-funded women's-health organization. The videos, released by Live Action, showed staffers in Planned Parenthood clinics in the two states apparently helping purported pimps find ways to help underage sex workers get abortions.

Live Action's goal in releasing the videos is to support efforts in Congress and in statehouses to defund Planned Parenthood, which is the largest women's health-services provider in the country, as well as the largest abortion provider. Mr. Cuccinelli's criticism suggests that, at least in his case, that message has hit home.

Cuccinelli, a Republican, said the edited footage shows that Planned Parenthood has "an open willingness to participate in this ... and when you see something like this, you can see how [sex trafficking] can flourish."

While Cuccinelli, as attorney general, does not have the power to defund Planned Parenthood in Virginia, he does have the power to bring legal action. He was, for instance, one of the state attorneys general that challenged President Obama's health-care reforms in court.

Challenges of prosecution

But patient confidentiality concerns might make it hard for prosecutors to build a case against Planned Parenthood on the evidence of the Live Action videos, says Jeffrey Grell, an attorney and racketeering law expert in Minneapolis.

"If people at Planned Parenthood are saying, 'I'll help a child get an abortion and not report you to the police,' that may be more a patient-confidentiality issue than a criminal issue – although you would hope that the focus would be on the child ... and improving the condition of women's lives instead of just giving them an abortion so they can go back out onto the street," he says.

But if patient confidentiality is waived or deemed inadmissible, federal and state criminal conspiracy laws could come into play for an ambitious prosecutor, he adds.

Under federal conspiracy laws, for example, "the only thing the prosecution needs to prove is that a conspirator agreed to the overall criminal objective and somehow furthered that objective," he says.

Planned Parenthood responds

For its part, Planned Parenthood officials said they were "shocked" by footage of an office worker in Perth Amboy, N.J., who could be heard giving advice to the "pimp" about how one of the underage girls could keep working after an abortion. Planned Parenthood has fired the worker. The organization says it has "zero tolerance" for helping those who abuse girls.

The second video, from Richmond, Va., shows an employee giving advice to the same "pimp" about how to get a "judicial bypass" to avoid the need to notify a girl's parents of an abortion. In this case, Planned Parenthood officials say the employee was just doing her job, noting that there are legal ways – including getting a judge's permission for an abortion in order not to notify parents – to help underage girls keep an abortion secret in order to uphold their constitutional rights.

"We are fully committed to delivering high-quality reproductive health care to the women of our communities, complying with all laws, and upholding the highest ethical standards," Planned Parenthood executive Phyllis Kinsler told the Associated Press.

Videos 'crystal clear' or not?

Planned Parenthood, which receives a third of its total funding from taxpayers, is forced to walk a fine legal and ethical line when it comes to answering questions from clients, says Nancy Maveety, an abortion-policy expert at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"There is an expectation of physician confidentiality ... so it does create a moral conflict certainly if there's a crime," she says. "But I don't think it's as crystal clear as the videos want to make it seem. We wouldn't want health-care providers to violate confidentiality willy-nilly just because they had the moral imperative to do so."

But Lila Rose, the founder of Live Action, says in an interview with the Monitor that the videos show that illegally covering up abuse of young women is "widespread, institutionalized and systemic" within Planned Parenthood.

"What you see on these tapes is Planned Parenthood workers more than eager to work with traffickers to find ways to get them special deals, how to work the system, how to ensure nobody asks questions and nobody knows anything," says Ms. Rose. "What you're seeing is the aiding and abetting of human trafficking, which is a federal crime."

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