SALT LAKE CITY — Planned Parenthood clinics in Utah were among the targets of a nationwide prayer vigil on Monday, where participants claimed the organization plays into illegal sex trafficking.
Organizers also support an initiative in Congress to end about $360 million in Title X funding, which provides about $2 million of Planned Parenthood's $7 million annual operating budget in Utah.
Monday's vigil gained steam from several videos produced by California anti-abortion group Live Action posted on YouTube that portray Planned Parenthood clinicians giving advice to a man and woman posing as a pimp and a prostitute. The video, taken at a New Jersey clinic, involves a discussion of abortion services for girls as young as 14 who are identified to the clinician as recently entering the country and working in sex trades.
"Just because it happened in New Jersey doesn't mean it's happening in Utah," said Melissa Bird, vice president of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah. She said she has never seen people involved in human trafficking or the sex trades try to get Planned Parenthood to provide services that directly support prostitution.
Bird believes the videos were doctored, though nationally Planned Parenthood has responded that individuals portrayed in the videos violated organization policies. Planned Parenthood fired one clinic manager in New Jersey who offered advice to the undercover visitors, but it otherwise says its staff responded professionally and reported the visits to their superiors.
Bird said the loss of federal funding would eliminate the only reproductive health care available to 43,000 Utahns.
Maryann Christensen led the prayer at Planned Parenthood's Salt Lake City clinic at 160 S. 1000 East, praying for "young girls who are exploited and abused."
Vigil organizer Gayle Ruzicka said that if Planned Parenthood in Utah wants to distance itself from the organization's actions in other states, "Why don't they get away from the organization and start their own?" She compared it to her role as the state director the Eagle Forum, which is a national organization. "If I'm not comfortable with that, I need to get away from it."
Title X has been the federal funding source for organizations like Planned Parenthood since 1970. "Eliminating valuable programs such as Title X is out of step with what mainstream American and Utah voters want," says a statement by Karrie Galloway, chief executive officer for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.
Planned Parenthood's national office notified the FBI before any of the videos were released and accused Live Action of resorting to deceptive "dirty tricks." It also announced a nationwide retraining program to ensure that clinic staffers were familiar with rules about reporting possible danger to minors.
While much about the videos is in dispute, they provided fresh ammunition for anti-abortion activists promoting a bill introduced by Congressman Mike Pence, R-Ind., that would deny federal family-planning funds to any organization that performs abortions. Pence makes clear that Planned Parenthood is his target; it would lose more than $70 million in annual funding.
By law, federal funds may not be used directly for abortions. But Pence argues that the grants, by covering overhead and operational costs, free up other money to provide abortions.
"In my community, Planned Parenthood is a very highly regarded mainstream organization," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., who depicted Pence's bill as "driven by an extreme ideological agenda."
In Utah, Bird said one Salt Lake clinic provides abortions, and that clinic does not use Title X funds.
Richards said Planned Parenthood, with a $1 billion annual budget, could survive the loss of the federal grants but would be forced to close some clinics and serve fewer people.
"This would roll back decades of progress for women's health care," she said in a telephone interview.
Contributing: The Associated Press