WASHINGTON — Two stealthily recorded videos show Planned Parenthood officials discussing how they provide aborted fetal organs for research. The videos have put the group and its Democratic allies on the defensive.
It's unclear how long the political damage may last or whether Planned Parenthood has broken federal law — as abortion foes contend.
What is clear is that Republicans and anti-abortion groups are giving no signs of letting the issue fade quickly. A look of what's happened and what may be ahead:
Anti-abortion activists, under the banner of the previously obscure Center for Medical Progress, released two videos secretly recorded in 2014 and 2015 by people posing as buyers of fetal tissue.
One video shows their conversation with Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services; the other is with Dr. Mary Gatter, one of the organization's medical directors.
In both videos, the Planned Parenthood officials discuss the amounts the group charges to provide the organs and the abortion procedures used to obtain the organs.
Abortion opponents say the videos show that Planned Parenthood is illegally harvesting and selling the organs. Planned Parenthood says it has done nothing wrong and that the videos were deceptively edited to support extremists' false claims.
THE POLITICAL PROBLEM
The business-like way the Planned Parenthood officials are seen discussing abortions, at times in grisly terms, has people from all camps wincing.
Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, has apologized for the "tone and statements." Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he has seen no indication that the organization broke federal laws, but that "should be looked into." Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said Democrats will not abandon their support for women's reproductive rights, but "nor are we going to defend the indefensible."
Abortion foes view the video as a political boon.
"When the curtain is drawn aside and people get glimpse of what the argument is about, at the actual brutality of abortion, yes, it helps pro-life candidates," said Douglas Johnson, top lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee.
Some Republicans warn against going too far by escalating the fight beyond Planned Parenthood itself. Polls show more Americans prefer abortion rights to banning abortion, and some Republicans have stumbled badly on the issue, including comments about "legitimate rape" by defeated GOP Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri.
"What you don't want to get into is the pro-life versus pro-choice debate," said GOP consultant Ron Bonjean. "Most Americans still mainly care about the economy, jobs and national security."
NEXT IN CONGRESS
Three congressional committees are making inquiries, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wants a briefing from Nucatola.
Planned Parenthood has not said she would appear. The committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in an interview that "at the end of the day, she'll testify" — by appearing by subpoena if necessary. Hearings seem likely.
Numerous Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates say they want to eliminate Planned Parenthood's federal funding, which they have tried unsuccessfully before. That effort can fire up conservative voters and donors but stands little chance of surviving in the Senate or getting President Barack Obama's signature. The fight could get ensnared in a possible budget battle this fall that might threaten another government shutdown.
Planned Parenthood's most recent annual report says that of its $1.3 billion budget, $528 million comes from the government, though that includes some money from states.
"I look forward to anyone who wants to look into our policies and procedures." Richards said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
PLANNED PARENTHOOD AND THE LAW
Three federal laws are most frequently mentioned in arguments over whether illegality has occurred.
One bans for-profit sales of fetal tissue, but allows the provider to recover the procedure's costs.
Nucatola and Gatter discuss potential prices for providing tissue. Nucatola mentions a range between $30 and $100 per procedure; Gatter discusses $75 but doesn't rule out $100. Both say Planned Parenthood wants to cover costs and not profit.
Another law bars providers from changing "the timing, method or procedures" of abortions to recover fetal tissue for research.
Gatter mentions a "less crunchy" technique that can increase the chances of recovering intact organs and says she would not mind asking a Planned Parenthood surgeon to consider that. "They're both totally appropriate techniques, there's no difference in pain involved," she says.
Nucatola says when a provider is attempting to recover an organ, "you're just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers" so "you're not going to crush that part." She also says, "You should always do the procedure the same, and that's what the providers try to do."
A third law bans a procedure that opponents call "partial-birth abortion," in which a living fetus is partly extracted from the mother as it is aborted. Nucatola mentions that to avoid violating that ban, some doctors use the drug digoxin, which can be toxic to a fetus in sufficient amounts.
Separately, California's attorney general, a Democrat who plans to run for the Senate in 2016, is investigating whether the group that made the videos violated registration or reporting requirements, or broke any other state rules.
DISAGREEMENT OVER WHETHER LAWS WERE BROKEN
Planned Parenthood says the videos show no illegal or improper actions, and that the group does not profit by providing tissue to researchers. Anti-abortion forces seem divided: Some say the doctors' words show law-breaking; others don't go that far.
"There's smoke there," says Right to Life's Johnson, who wants the videos examined by "people with investigative authority."
"The Weekly," a publication by the anti-abortion Southern Baptist Convention, wrote recently that Planned Parenthood's practices seem "sadly and shockingly legal," and called for new laws.
Richards says fetal organ donation takes place in a handful of states and the tissue goes toward medical research.
"This is actually laudable that women and their families choose to make fetal tissue donations in order to potentially save the lives of other folks," Richards said.