Facing Congress, Planned Parenthood CEO Defends Abortion as a Health Service

Planned Parenthood Federation president Cecile Richards waits to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Capitol Hill. Richards clashed with House Republicans over abortion rights. Gary Cameron/REUTERS

Updated | "I'm confused as to why we are here."

Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democratic Representative from New Jersey, has already witnessed political fights over Planned Parenthood under Gov. Chris Christie, but apparently this didn't prepare her for Tuesday's hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

As legislators debated Planned Parenthood funding on the House floor, Democrats and Republicans in the committee argued about abortion rights while Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards addressed videos that purported to expose illegal practices of the health provider. Republicans have accused the organization, in the words of Tennessee Rep. John Duncan, of profiting from "the sale of baby body parts."

"That is a total mischaracterization," said Richards, later adding, "We don't make money on anything" as a nonprofit. Richards said that Planned Parenthood considers abortion one of the health services it provides, which caused committee members to bristle.

As Republicans grilled the witness, Democrats accused their colleagues of playing politics. "You threatened to shut down the federal government. You ousted your speaker. And now you want to set up another committee to investigate," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat and the ranking member of the committee.

Richards argued that the videos did not prove that Planned Parenthood broke the law, even if they contained uncomfortable language, since abortion and the sale of fetal tissue for research are both legal. But congressional Republicans argued that taxpayers should not fund Planned Parenthood even if federal dollars only pay for women's health expenditures.

"I think the majority of Americans would oppose public, federal dollars going into abortion," said John Mica, a Republican from Florida.

Richards stressed that Planned Parenthood, rather than receiving a lump sum of federal dollars, gets Medicaid and other government reimbursements like a hospital. Republicans took aim at what they said was a profitable organization that needed no government aid in any form.

"They're pretty good at fundraising," committee chair Jason Chaffetz quipped in his opening remarks.

As Richards provided testimony she was frequently interrupted by critics, which led Democrat Rep. Gerry Connolly to accuse Republican committee members of misogynistic bullying. Chaffetz and others questioned Richards's six figure annual salary, which is more than $500,000.

Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a Republican, continually pressed Richards to state how much money Planned Parenthood makes on abortion. Richards deferred the question, stating that she would submit documentation on revenue from Planned Parenthood's affiliates. She maintained that abortions account for about 3 percent of the services the organization provides, which include treatment for sexually transmitted infections and birth control. Meadows disagreed with her math, saying that with over 350,000 abortions provided and 2.7 million total patients admitted to Planned Parenthood in the past year, the allocation was closer to 12 percent.

"Some people come to us more than once," Richards said.

The leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Meadows is at the forefront of a movement in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood using the looming threat of a government shutdown. Pressure from the Freedom Caucus and other Tea Party–influenced groups in Congress pressured House Speaker John Boehner to announce his resignation last week.

There also seemed to be a great deal of confusion about what services the organization actually provides. Richard's group does breast cancer screenings but does not perform mammograms.

"If you need a mammogram, you are referred to a radiological center," said Richards. Several Republicans seemed to be suggesting that the organization ought to transition to providing radiological services rather than abortions.

"I feel like I'm in some sort of bizarre, alternate universe," said Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California. Lieu questioned why Republicans had not launched committees to investigate the financial allocations of other organizations (such as hospital groups) that provide health services using Medicaid, Title X and other federal funds while providing abortions.

The debate over Planned Parenthood stemmed from the release of videos by the Center for Medical Progress, which is headed by pro-life activist David Daleiden. Daleiden spent three years infiltrating Planned Parenthood in an apparent attempt to acquire evidence that would discredit the organization. The unedited versions of the videos he published were apparently kept in a box in the possession of the Oversight Committee, which Chaffetz said could not be opened for legal reasons.

An NBC poll found that Planned Parenthood has among the highest approval ratings of various entities in the U.S., and many congressional Republicans fear that the political fallout from a government shutdown over the organization's funding could hurt the party. Protests around the country in support of Planned Parenthood were organized by pro-choice groups to coincide with the hearing and Richards's testimony. Planned Parenthood supporters delivered petitions with over 2.4 million signatures to Congress.

This article originally misstated the name of Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman as Bonnie Coleman.