Planned Parenthood under fire after release of ACORN-like 'pimp' videos

Antiabortion activists have released videos showing Planned Parenthood workers allegedly colluding with a man posing as a pimp to exploit underage sex workers. It is part of a broader campaign against Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest provider of abortions.

A screen shot from the video by Live Action at a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Jersey.

An antiabortion activist group is targeting the federally funded Planned Parenthood Federation of America in a series of undercover videos showing clinic workers apparently colluding with a man posing as a pimp to cover up exploitation of 14- and 15-year-old immigrant sex workers.

The group, Live Action, is following in the footsteps of James O'Keefe, the conservative activist who used similar undercover videos – also using a "pimp" scenario – to expose corruption inside ACORN, an advocacy group for the poor. ACORN lost its federal funding after the scandal and is now essentially defunct.

Run by O'Keefe protegée Lila Rose, Live Action is attempting to do the same thing to Planned Parenthood, which offers abortion as part of comprehensive reproductive-health services primarily to poor women and receives $363 million from federal, state, and local governments, according to a company spokesman. The organization performs about 300,000 abortions every year according to its annual reports, making it the largest abortion provider in the US, though federal mandates prevent it from using taxpayer dollars on abortions.

Planned Parenthood is a more respected and established institution than ACORN, putting it in a better position to stave off the defunding campaign and limit public relations damage from the videos, says Nancy Maveety, an abortion-policy expert at Tulane University in New Orleans.

But already, the videos have spawned an "Expose Planned Parenthood" campaign among antiabortion groups, and with Republicans now holding the House, Planned Parenthood critics could find an ear on Capitol Hill.

The videos

One Live Action video, from a Planned Parenthood in Perth Amboy, N.J., shows a worker identified as Amy Woodruff advising a "pimp" on how he can get abortion services for 14- and 15-year-old sex workers without notifying authorities. A second from Richmond, Va., shows a worker explaining a "judicial bypass" to a request from the "pimp" to keep the young girls from getting parental consent for an abortion.

Responding to the New Jersey video, which was released earlier, Planned Parenthood executives said they were "profoundly shocked," adding that the worker's comments were "inconsistent with our standards of care." Planned Parenthood has fired the worker depicted in the New Jersey video, which was filmed in January.

Meanwhile, state investigators in New Jersey and Virginia are looking into whether the Planned Parenthood workers' advice violated state laws.

Planned Parenthood has long been the target of antiabortion groups, who allege that it pushes its abortion services on young women and fails to report statutory rape crimes against underage girls – a charge the organization denies. For example, activist Mark Crutcher in 2002 recorded phone calls to Planned Parenthood in which he posed as an older man seeking abortion services for a fictional underage girl he had impregnated. Ms. Rose has cited Mr. Crutcher as an influence.

New techniques

The videos, however, open a provocative new front in the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The heavily edited videos highlight the "moral conflict" faced by health-care workers dealing with family planning, birth control, and abortion services, says Ms. Maveety of Tulane.

Providers, she says, have to weigh evidence of a crime against patient-confidentiality laws – all while trying to support the best interests of a specific client.

"To not fairly present [patient confidentiality] as a professional obligation is to distort the situation," she says. "Seen through the history of the public-policy debate about abortion, one of the earliest points of vulnerability was public funding ... and that's obviously the goal here, to take public funding from clinics to limit the number of ... providers. These techniques, however, are different."

Planned Parenthood has "zero tolerance" for unethical behavior, but the incidents on the videos are "very isolated," an organization spokesman, Stuart Schear, told The New York Times.

“We cannot lose sight of the bigger picture that we have opponents who are in many cases opposed to birth control, honest sex education, and legal abortion, and are coordinating with allies on Capitol Hill to defund Planned Parenthood,” Mr. Schear added in the Times interview.

But Rose said in a Twitter message posted this week that the videos point to "a much broader and more endemic" problem within Planned Parenthood.

'Expose Planned Parenthood'

The videos are giving momentum to a new antiabortion lobbying effort called "Expose Planned Parenthood," which supports a House bill that would cut $78 million of funding from family-planning organizations that perform abortions. Planned Parenthood says only 3 percent of its work is abortion-related.

Antiabortion groups argue that Planned Parenthood is vulnerable. They contend that the organization has been losing community support, reflected in a decline in the number of affiliate clinics – from 938 to 785 – since 1995.

In 2009, US Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana offered an amendment to cut funding specifically to Planned Parenthood. The amendment failed, but received 183 votes. The House bill introduced this year to cut funding to groups that offer abortions has 173 co-sponsors in the House; 218 votes are needed to guarantee passage. If the bill passed, however, it would likely fail in the Senate or be vetoed by President Obama.

"We really believe that Planned Parenthood is in trouble because of these videos, and we believe that Planned Parenthood should be worried about its funding," says Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League, an antiabortion group in Virginia.

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