WASHINGTON — A prominent abortion foe is accusing Planned Parenthood of violating federal laws barring for-profit sales of fetal tissue, while a defender of the group says it's done nothing illegal as Congress begins long-awaited hearings that are already weaving accusations, emotion and politics.
Clandestinely recorded videos show that Planned Parenthood "violates various federal laws," and only banning research using fetal tissue from abortions or abortion itself "will prevent the inevitable abuse," James Bopp Jr., general counsel for National Right to Life, said in testimony prepared for Wednesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing.
He was countered by Priscilla Smith, who directs Yale Law School's Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice. "There is simply no evidence in these misleadingly edited videos of a violation" of statutes, she said in her written remarks.
Wednesday's hearing is Congress' first since the Center for Medical Progress, a small group of anti-abortion activists, began releasing videos in July showing Planned Parenthood officials casually describing how they sometimes obtain tissue from aborted fetuses for medical researchers. Backed by analysts it hired, Planned Parenthood has said the videos were dishonestly edited to distort its officials' remarks and has denied any wrongdoing.
Also testifying were two women who say they survived failed abortions as newborns. Their appearance underscores how the GOP is eager to use questions about fetal tissue research to personalize the broader political dispute over abortion, an issue that could fan both sides' activists during the 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns.
"If abortion is about women's rights, then what were mine?" said Gianna Jessen, who says she was born alive after a failed 1977 abortion in Los Angeles and has been a high-profile campaigner against the procedure.
Both Jessen and Bopp suggested parallels between abortion-rights arguments and Nazi Germany. Bopp said an attorney who prosecuted Nazi war criminals said Germany acted savagely after deciding that "one group of human beings have lost human rights," while Jessen quoted Adolf Hitler as saying of people: "Their power of forgetting is enormous."
As lawmakers returned from summer recess, House Republicans were also gathering privately Wednesday to discuss an autumn that promises repeated clashes with President Barack Obama and Democrats over the budget, Iran and other issues.
Many conservative lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates want Congress to end federal payments to Planned Parenthood as the price for approving spending bills keeping government agencies open past Oct. 1. Top Republicans want to avoid a standoff that precipitates a federal shutdown that voters might blame on the GOP and hope showdown votes over Planned Parenthood can be isolated to separate bills not tied to financing the government.
In noteworthy omissions at Wednesday's hearing, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Planned Parenthood and the Center for Medical Progress were not testifying.
Bopp said comments in the videos by Planned Parenthood officials show they were not limiting their fees for fetal tissue to covering their own expenses, as the law allows. They are "instead trying to make money off of human fetal tissue," he said.
Among the remarks he cites is one by Dr. Mary Gatter, a regional Planned Parenthood medical director in California, who in conversation with abortion opponents posing as private tissue buyers said, "In negotiations, the person who throws out the figure first is at a loss, right?"
In her testimony, Smith said such conversations were actually unsuccessful attempts by the Center for Medical Progress to "entrap" Planned Parenthood officials into illegally selling tissue for profit.
"Despite three long years of undercover work, this group has failed to lure Planned Parenthood into the trap," Smith said.
Bopp urged lawmakers to probe whether Planned Parenthood is violating the federal ban against a procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. He also cited other comments on the Planned Parenthood videos he says are evidence that the group changes abortion procedures to increase their chances of recovering intact tissue.
That is prohibited by federal law when tissue is being obtained for federally financed research on transplantation. The National Institutes of Health says it has not financed a trial on such research for almost a decade, and Planned Parenthood has said it doesn't alter abortion procedures anyway.
Planned Parenthood provides contraception, tests for sexually transmitted diseases and abortions in clinics across the country. It receives more than $500 million each year from federal and state governments, more than a third of its overall $1.3 billion annual budget, mostly Medicaid reimbursements for treating low-income patients.
Three other congressional committees are also investigating Planned Parenthood, but have yet to hold hearings.