Calling today’s public questioning by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee a “hearing” would give the proceeding far too much credit. Cecile Richards, the President of Planned Parenthood, appeared before the House Committee today under the auspices of answering for claims based in video footage obtained by a third party and then shared with the general public. These videos – which were found to have been highly edited in every form – had one purpose: to create an opportunity to bring Planned Parenthood under further scrutiny in the public eye.
And this is exactly what has happened. From the Texas legislature to Congress, lawmakers are using these videos as an excuse to interrogate the very existence of Planned Parenthood, and as forums for questioning the morality of abortion care. Today’s hearing was no different, but this time, they had Cecile Richards in the room.
Richards was subjected to hours of questioning that ranged in topic from a recent attempt to defund Planned Parenthood at the federal level to her commitment to understanding the positions of those who are anti-choice. In a hearing convened specifically to discuss the procedures for the donation of fetal tissue for medical research – stemming from allegations found in the videos that Planned Parenthood does not follow state and federal laws prohibiting the selling of fetal tissue – many of the questions strayed far off this path and, instead, focused on vilifying Richards and her organization for providing access to a full spectrum of reproductive services.
Richards was repeatedly asked to confirm or deny whether federal funding is used for abortion services at Planned Parenthood. She continually reminded the federal lawmakers that existing federal statute – in place since the 1970’s – explicitly bars any federal funding for abortion except in very specific cases including rape and incest. Richards also took the opportunity to point out that these federal restrictions on funding for abortion place an unfair burden on Americans who rely on the government for healthcare.
In a bizarre turn of events, even Richards’ tenure as President and her salary were up for scrutiny. In what other context would it be imaginable that a panel of fiscal conservatives would repeatedly attack the president of a nonprofit for growing the organization and expanding into under-served communities, or receiving a salary commensurate with her qualifications? Are these not the very attributes on which Donald Trump is successfully basing a run for the Republican presidential nomination?
Republicans on the panel were equally concerned with the actions of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an organization that Richards repeatedly stated is a separate corporation focused on elections and advocacy. How, Republican after Republican demanded, could this organization claim to be bipartisan when it gave almost exclusively to Democrats? What on earth was prohibiting Planned Parenthood Action Fund from giving to Republicans, many of whom were on this panel demanding she explain herself for daring to be associated with a law-abiding organization that provides abortion care, among other healthcare services? Perhaps the irony was lost on the committee members, but Richards did not waste a single opportunity to assure them that, should more Republicans support women’s rights and women’s health, Planned Parenthood Action Fund would surely be happy to increase its donations to Republican candidates.
This was not a Congressional committee hearing focused on determining whether a nonprofit has followed the law in regards to certain standards for fetal tissue donation. This was a witch hunt, and Cecile Richards was on the stake. Committee members came from every angle in an attempt to implicate Richards personally in wrongdoing, badgering her with questions about her income and whether she had any interaction with the other arms of the nonprofit.
Representative Trey Gowdy put it best when dismissing Richards’ repeated efforts to explain the legal precedent for Planned Parenthood’s policies: “My question wasn’t whether you follow the law.” No, it most certainly wasn’t. And neither was that the goal of the committee hearing.
Countless Democrats criticized their colleagues’ lines of questioning, and their claims to ignorance. “If they are uninformed,” Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman said of the Republican members on the committee, “it’s because they choose to be.”
Through all of this, Richards remained calm, provided factual responses, and stood up for the rights of all Americans to abortion services and the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare. For that, all of us should join Congressman Elijah E. Cummings in thanking her for everything she has done and will continue to do to advance the health of women in the face of fierce ignorance and opposition.