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The Planned Parenthood Videos, Part 3: Did Carly Fiorina Lie?

Carly Fiorina at the CNN debate
Carly Fiorina at the CNN debate

The videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (previously discussed here and here) continue to gain news coverage, this time because of a statement made by Republican Presidential Hopeful Carly Fiorina at a televised debate on CNN two weeks ago. Here is what she said:
As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape--I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.
Fact-checkers went ape over this quote, denouncing it as "Mostly False," and they make a pursuasive case. There is no footage in any of the released Planned Parenthood videos that exactly matches what Fiorina describes. However, there is footage that comes very, very close. In the seventh video, while a former PP technician describes a particularly gruesome procedure involving a living, aborted fetus and the harvesting of its brain, there is stock footage shown of a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating and its legs kicking. Nobody says anything about needing to keep it alive in order to harvest its brain, but the footage of the fetus is absolutely real. (And claims that the footage is "highly edited" to the point of deliberate misdirection have been thoroughly debunked, even by PP's own investigation--though I've always found that to be a weak argument in the first place given the fact that CMP releases unedited footage alongside the edited footage.)

But, the detractors claim, it's stock footage, and it probably has nothing to do with Planned Parenthood, as though this changes anything. Indeed, to anyone horrified by abortion, the fact that it's so easy to find stock footage of a living aborted fetus is even more sobering. Still, note that Carly Fiorina didn't say the footage was filmed at a Planned Parenthood clinic (though one could argue it is vaguely implied); all she said was "watch a fully formed fetus on the table." She didn't even mention abortion at any point in her statement! But, to be fair, she did call the footage "this videotape," which I suppose is anachronistic.

I don't want to include any abortion pictures, so here are some racist kittens to look at instead

Two days ago, a longer cut of the stock footage (warning: very graphic) was released on YouTube, showing the fetus being extracted before being placed on a tray where it squirms and its heart beats. There has been heated disagreement as to whether this is footage of an induced abortion or an induced miscarriage (a razor-thin distinction, to be sure, but a relevant one), with people falling predictably on the side most befitting their politics. Either way, it changes nothing about the validity of Fiorina's statement. Again I stress that Fiorina didn't even say the footage was of an abortion.

So did Carly Fiorina lie? I'd give her the benefit of the doubt and say she probably misremembered exactly what she saw in the heat of the moment (this was a sweaty three hour marathon of a debate, after all), but it wasn't an outright lie. Yes, her claim that anyone said that a fetus has to be kept alive in order to harvest its brain is simply wrong, but when watching the described footage while somebody talks about poking a fetus to get its heart beating and then cutting into its face to suck out the brain, it's pretty easy to conflate things. So, with all due respect to PolitiFact, I would rate her statement as "Mostly True."

Regardless, this entirely overlooks the point. As I've mentioned before, the CMP videos don't offer conclusive proof of illegal activity, though they do raise more than enough concerns to warrant more investigation. It is wrong for anyone to jump to any knee-jerk conclusions based on political bias. Having said that, Fiorina's main point, that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are refusing to even watch the footage, is unequivocably true (though Clinton has admitted to finding still images from the videos "disturbing"). Sure, you can accuse Fiorina of prejudging PP, but you must level the same accusation at the other side as well. Few people in the political arena, if anyone, is actually being objective here.

Cecile Richards
Meanwhile, this woman has been caught in numerous lies regarding Planned Parenthood, but apparently that's not news

This has spawned a bunch of Congressional hearings, where PP President Cecile Richards recently admitted that Planned Parenthood doesn't offer mammograms and gets a whopping 86% of its revenue through abortions. Congressional Republicans are open in their goal of defunding the organization, just as Democrats are eager to keep that funding in place no matter what. This is a sideshow, of course, because the amount of money we're talking about isn't even remotely critical to the federal budget and losing it wouldn't be catastrophic for Planned Parenthood's bottom line. Even if Republicans get their way, the money will still be spent, just on other women's health clinics (that do offer important things like mammograms), and at the end of the day, abortion will still be just as legal and prevelant as it was before, and women will have just as much access to affordable healthcare as they did before.

So what, if anything, is the ultimate result of all this? I'd say it's been pretty negative press for Planned Parenthood (leading to at least one indefensible violent attack on the organization) and good PR for the pro-life cause. Even the most defensive journalists are keeping the story in the headlines--which is leading to more eyes on the footage--and when confronted with the blood-and-guts reality of abortion, a lot of people are likely to rethink their position on the subject. I know I have.

Nice opinion
Pretty much what the abortion debate boils down to

I used to think abortion was all about choice, that whether or not I liked the practice, it wasn't the government's place to force a moral choice upon a pregnant woman. However, if this is really what the debate is about, why is there such unwillingness to compromise on the finer details like parental notification, late-term abortion bans, born-alive legislation, etc.? I've come to a place now where I can see a pro-life stance being a libertarian one (despite my previous insistence that it can't), where what we're talking about isn't the choice of the mother, but the potential rights of the unborn child. The government has every right--in fact it has the duty--to protect the lives of its citizens, and if the question of personhood can't be settled by science or reason (and it can't, at least not yet), maybe the default government position should be to overprotect the potential life, even as it denies a certain degree of choice to pregnant women.

As such, though I used to call myself "adamantly" pro-choice, I've decided that I am neither pro-choice nor pro-life when it comes to abortion. I am pro-compromise. The CMP videos and the political fallout from them were definitely the catalyst for this change in my opinion. I do believe that, for the earliest stages of development, all we're talking about is a clump of cells, not a life, but I also believe that, once a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb (which is roughly 23 weeks), it is definitely a life worth protecting. I don't know how to define the difference, and any line one draws is necessarily arbitrary. Therefore, we should compromise; we should find an arbitrary line that both sides can eventually agree to and make that the place where the unborn's life is more important than the pregnant woman's choice. Maybe potential viability--23 weeks--is the way to go. Too bad neither side seems interested in such a compromise; they'd rather debate political statements, pontificate about the journalistic integrity of sting videos and editing, and quibble over money and partial government shutdowns than actually find common ground.

-e. magill 10/1/2015

  • Writing About Politics
  • Rethinking the Planned Parenthood Videos
  • You Don't Have to Be Pro-Life to Find the Planned Parenthood Videos Disturbing