RICHMOND — Republican leaders of Virginia’s House of Delegates on Thursday called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe to launch a criminal investigation into whether Planned Parenthood’s Virginia affiliates are using illegal abortion techniques to preserve fetal organs for medical research.
Republicans made the request following the release of an undercover video showing a national Planned Parenthood executive having a casual yet graphic lunchtime discussion about processes used to keep organs intact.
A congressional committee and the governors of Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas, as well as the attorney general of Ohio, have ordered investigations of their own.
“Governor McAuliffe received nearly $2 million in campaign contributions from the abortion industry,” said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas). “He simply cannot remain silent on the outrageous reports regarding Planned Parenthood’s abortion practices. He should begin an immediate investigation.”
McAuliffe (D) made abortion rights a major theme of his 2013 campaign, promising to be a “brick wall” against attempts to scale them back. He said through a spokesman that there was no need for an investigation.
But in a sign that the controversy has taken a toll on even the most ardent abortion-rights supporters, the spokesman also said McAuliffe had been “disturbed” by the video.
Planned Parenthood’s top official in the state sought to distance her affiliates from the video, saying the seven Virginia clinics do not provide fetal tissue to researchers. She also took issue with the tone of the national Planned Parenthood executive caught on video.
“Our [national] staff member’s tone and statements do not reflect the compassionate care we provide,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.
Virginia Republicans also found themselves walking a fine line as they sought to capitalize on the video without giving Democrats more fodder for claims that the GOP was waging a “war on women.”
Democrats have successfully used that line of attack against Republicans in every statewide election since 2012, when the GOP supported a bill requiring most women to get a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion. Since then, Republican legislative leaders have tried to keep abortion politics quiet in Richmond.
The risks to Republicans were already clear, as Democrats went after U.S. Rep. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Va.), who was prompted by the video to withdraw her support for a breast cancer research bill. Comstock and other Republicans were concerned that Planned Parenthood, which also provides cancer screenings, would get some of the federal money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee described the move as evidence of Comstock’s extreme inclinations.
Several of the House Republicans who called for the investigation took pains to separate the allegations about the sale of organs and use of illegal abortion techniques from the issue of abortion rights itself.
“The practices described in news reports and discussed in that video are horrific and should be universally condemned, regardless of one’s personal views on abortion,” said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).
Said House Majority Caucus Chairman Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax): “I understand that some Virginians have different views on abortion, but what was shown in that video and what has been documented in news reports since should be condemned, regardless of any personal opinions on abortion.”
An antiabortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, made an undercover video featuring Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical research. She is shown discussing, over lunch, how to put the fetus in a breech position and using other techniques to preserve the organs. She also discusses dollar amounts associated with the organs.
The sale of fetal tissue is illegal, but it can be donated with the woman’s permission. Federal regulations also prohibit anyone from altering the timing or method of an abortion for the sole purpose of preserving tissue for research.
Planned Parenthood has said that it sometimes donates fetal tissue for research and recoups the cost of transporting the tissue but that it does not profit from it.
The video went viral, with many viewers shocked by Nucatola’s casual tone.
“I’d say a lot of people want liver,” Nucatola says between bites of salad. “And for that reason, most providers will do this case under ultrasound guidance so they’ll know where they’re putting their forceps.”
She continues: “We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
Del. Kathy Byron (R-Campbell) said that McAuliffe needs to make sure that Virginia clinics are not following such practices.
“The video is absolutely horrifying, confirming practices that are outrageous and abhorrent,” she said. “The cavalier attitude toward life, expressed between mouthfuls of salad, was particularly shocking. Governor McAuliffe needs to make sure these practices are not occurring in Virginia.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor was concerned by the video while also dismissing Republican calls for an investigation as a stealth attack on abortion rights.
“Governor McAuliffe was disturbed by the content of the video in question, but does not believe it should be fodder for political attacks on women’s access to health care,” Coy said in a written statement. “Every Virginia women’s health center is licensed and regulated by the Virginia Department of Health and subject to regular and thorough inspections to ensure that they are in full compliance with all federal and state laws and regulations. The Governor is confident that any violation of those laws and regulations will be reported and appropriate action taken.”
Cianti Stewart-Reid said Planned Parenthood would cooperate with any investigation, but she also said Republicans were playing politics.
“We always seek and welcome feedback from medical experts but not from politicians,” she said. “These medical issues shouldn’t be politicized like this. This isn’t what people want their state elected officials to spend their time on.”