Since Feb. 1, the conservative group Live Action has released a series of undercover videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood staff breaking laws by helping a fake pimp and prostitute conceal their fictitious prostitution business.
At first glance, it looks like a repeat of James O'Keefe's videos that brought down ACORN in the fall of 2009. But, so far, the Planned Parenthood videos haven't stuck in the same way. Here's what makes them different:
- Legal ambiguity. ACORN employees were caught explicitly advising O'Keefe, posed as a pimp, to falsify information on government forms in order to evade taxes and obtain subsidized loans to buy a house. That's illegal. "Most states have false statement laws" that prohibit people from lying to government agencies, said Stuart Green, a criminal-law professor at Rutgers. "That's going to be a crime." What happens in the Planned Parenthood videos is less clear: In the most damning video, a New Jersey Planned Parenthood worker advises the fake pimp to tell his underage prostitutes to lie about the ages of their sexual partners, to avoid reporting requirements (states require physicians to report child abuse and statutory rape). Which is bad. But in other videos, Planned Parenthood workers simply tell the pimp and prostitute that "everything's confidential." That's true, given that Planned Parenthood is in most cases bound to doctor-patient confidentiality rules under the federal HIPAA law. A Planned Parenthood worker also recommends that the pimp can submit a letter of support for the underage girls, but notes that Planned Parenthood does not require a statement from a legal guardian. The notion that Planned Parenthood is advocating a false statement of legal guardianship seems a bit muddy.
- Moral ambiguity. Underlying the legal point, there are some tough ethical questions involved--far tougher than in ACORN's case. Live Action argues that anyone who counsels a perceived pimp on his practice is guilty of abetting the crime, but doctor-patient confidentiality seriously confuses the point. No one should assist or cover up child prostitution; on the other hand, medical professionals should be able to treat anyone, confidentially. Most people would agree with both statements.
- Planned Parenthood's proactive response. While ACORN fired the taped employees and launched an investigation into what James O'Keefe captured on film, Planned Parenthood seems to have taken swifter and more serious action. It says it reported its interactions with the fake pimp and prostitute to the FBI. It fired the New Jersey worker two days after Live Action posted that video on YouTube. It's also ordered a re-training of its staff. Those are substantive steps, and they seem to have insulated the group as a whole from the New Jersey incident in particular--meaning Planned Parenthood probably won't die for the sins of its individual employees.
- Allies in Congress have stood by Planned Parenthood. What really brought ACORN down was Congress. After the O'Keefe scandal unfolded, congressional Democrats voted with Republicans to eliminate federal funds for ACORN. Planned Parenthood also gets federal money, under Title X, but Planned Parenthood's allies don't seem willing to de-fund Planned Parenthood anytime soon, although Republicans are proposing it. When The Atlantic asked the office of Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) for her reaction to the Planned Parenthood videos, here's what she had to say: "The charges against Planned Parenthood are ridiculous. They are the product of the same dirty tricks we've seen time and again from opponents of women's rights and the videos are clearly doctored. Planned Parenthood staff reported these incidents to the police. In the one case where a staffer showed bad judgment, the staffer was promptly fired. We should be focused on jobs in this Congress."
- Disputed facts. Perhaps most importantly, Planned Parenthood has aggressively sought to discredit these videos. Lila Rose, the UCLA activist who runs Live Action, has a "history of doctoring video, making false claims and has no credibility." It has helped Planned Parenthood's case that Rose has been at this for a while, and her previous videos haven't brought the group down either. While the ACORN videos were accepted as fact, Planned Parenthood claims Live Action's videos were edited and that sound was spliced in. The group says its workers never heard the pimp say he was "involved in sex work"--which is clearly audible in the videos. Live Action, meanwhile, has subsequently released what it says are unedited versions of all the videos. It doesn't sound like they were edited, but it's not always easy to tell for an untrained ear. Journalists have to give both sides a voice in this, and Planned Parenthood's claims of doctored video have gone a long way to creating uncertainty and controlling how this story has been covered.
- A more established institution. Both ACORN and Planned Parenthood serve some low-income and minority constituencies. Both are allied with Democrats. But Planned Parenthood occupies a more specific political niche, as the nation's most prominent reproductive-health group. Supporters of abortion rights protect it fiercely. ACORN, while it was a large group that had supported Democrats, was also a marginal group in progressive politics. As a result, Democrats were quicker to abandon it.
Find Live Action's videos on the group's YouTube page.