When the pro-life Center for Medical Progress began releasing undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing, often in gruesome detail, how to perform abortions so that intact fetal parts could be provided to medical researchers, some Democrats dismissed the ensuing uproar as a manufactured controversy. “Let’s have an investigation of those people who were trying to ensnare Planned Parenthood in a controversy that doesn’t exist”, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week.
Now that Hillary Clinton—the party’s presumptive presidential nominee—has begun to distance herself from the content of the videos, it’s hard to deny that there is, in fact, a real controversy here. Clinton commented on the videos in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader:
Calling them “disturbing,” Hillary Clinton said undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of aborted fetal tissue raise questions about the process nationwide.
“I have seen pictures from them and I obviously find them disturbing,” the Democratic presidential hopeful said during a sit-down interview Tuesday with the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“Planned Parenthood is answering questions and will continue to answer questions. I think there are two points to make,” Clinton said. “One, Planned Parenthood for more than a century has done a lot of really good work for women: cancer screenings, family planning, all kinds of health services. And this raises not questions about Planned Parenthood so much as it raises questions about the whole process, that is, not just involving Planned Parenthood, but many institutions in our country.”
“And if there’s going to be any kind of congressional inquiry, it should look at everything and not just one part of it,” she said.
Clinton has always been a strong proponent of abortion rights. She was among the 33 Senators who voted against the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003, and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards tweeted last April that “there has never been a presidential candidate with as strong a commitment to women’s health & rights.” So Clinton’s remarks that the videos, if anything, “raise questions” about “many institutions in our country” and the “whole process” of abortion suggest that the pro-life sting is beginning to move the needle politically. She certainly wouldn’t have suggested, even in a qualified way, a broad federal inquiry into abortion practices last month or the month before.
Why are the videos effective? Not necessarily because, as the group releasing the videos alleges, Planned Parenthood’s activities are illegal or unusual. The evidence here is contested, and we will leave the legal debate to the lawyers. But whatever may be the legal status of the practices they capture, the videos are effective precisely because the activities they so vividly describe make many people uncomfortable—and it is policies supported by the Democratic Party that make many of those activities possible.
After the first video came out, we wrote that while public opinion on abortion is stuck in the murky middle, with most people cautiously supportive of first trimester abortion rights but generally opposed to later term abortions, both parties tend to take positions along the extremes. Most Democrats take an absolutist pro-choice position and many Republicans, including the 2012 Vice Presidential nominee, take an absolutist pro-life position.
Any event that draws attention to the gulf between a party’s position and public opinion is likely to put pressure on that party to change its tone. Just as Todd Akin’s 2012 “legitimate rape” remarks drew attention to the fact that many Republicans oppose rape exceptions to abortion bans, the Planned Parenthood videos—complete with their references to second-trimester abortions and their cavalier discussions of fetus-crushing—are drawing attention to the Democratic Party’s rather extreme stance on the issue.
The videos may not provoke any dramatic legislative changes at the federal level in the near future. But they are forcing the public to think hard about a Democratic-supported practice that, by and large, makes Americans uneasy.