Seven candidates on the Republican debate stage mentioned Planned Parenthood. But only one of them managed to turn it into national headlines. That was Carly Fiorina, who’s being widely heralded as the debate’s winner.
“As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes,” Fiorina said. “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.”
There has been a series of videos released recently by the Center for Medical Progress, a conservative anti-abortion group. As I wrote when the first video was published, they are potent tools for the anti-abortion movement, because they show Planned Parenthood officials speaking in graphic detail about aborted fetuses and how tissue from them can be used. Opinions on abortion have barely moved since Roe v. Wade, and anyone not convinced by a morality argument is unlikely to suddenly be persuaded. The idea here is that the “ick” factor might be a more powerful means of changing minds.
Still, the image Fiorina described stuck out as something that I didn’t recall from the videos. Nor did anyone else, it turns out—it doesn’t seem to exist. There is, however, a description similar to this in one video. A former technician from an abortion lab, Holly O’Donnell describes a scene (these quotes are taken starting around 3:30 in the video, with some breaks in between sections):
The moment I see it I’m just flabbergasted. This is the most gestated fetus and closest thing to a baby I’ve seen ... She has one of her instruments and she just taps the heart and it start beating. I’m sitting here and I’m looking at this fetus and its heart is beating. I don’t know what to think …. I don’t know if it’s technically dead or its alive. It had a face …. Since the fetus was so intact, she said, OK, well, this is a really good fetus. It looks like we can procure a lot from it. We’re going to procure a brain.
O’Donnell then describes being shaken as she removed the brain from the fetus. At one point in the video, there’s an image of a fetus on the screen, but that is a stillborn baby and not an aborted one.
Thursday on Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos pressed Fiorina on the discrepancy, asking if she misspoke. “I didn’t misspeak and I don’t know who you’re speaking about in terms of watching the tapes, but I have seen those images,” she said. “I don’t know whether you’ve watched the tapes, George. Most people haven’t.” He again asked her to specify, and she deflected with an answer to a question he didn't ask, about whether the tapes were doctored: “Well, you know, there’s a lot of commentary about these tapes being doctored. In fact, that’s what the mainstream media keeps talking about is the tapes and their origins. Rest assured, I have seen the images that I talked about last night.”
She may have seen the images somewhere, but they were not in the Center for Medical Progress's Planned Parenthood tapes. (Another video shows stock footage of a fetus, but it’s not from a Planned Parenthood clinic.)
For political purposes, that may not matter. As Ian Tuttle suggests at National Review, the real coup is just to once again make the videos a story in the mainstream media. It’s anybody’s guess how much they’ll affect the debate over abortion and Planned Parenthood. Congress still seems on course for a potential shutdown over federal funding for the organization (here’s a little more on what Planned Parenthood does with that funding, and why it's so hard to defund it), and this likely won’t change that. But what about the longer-term debate? In August, right after the videos were released, Rebecca Traister argued that the “big secret” of abortion was that “women already know how it works.” Given that, she doubted these tapes would shift the conversation.
The real war over abortion isn’t being waged at the federal level, though. Periodic showdowns over funding in Washington are largely a sideshow to what's going on at the state level. And across the nation, as Molly Redden recently reported, conservatives have managed to marshal their forces and use propaganda coups like the Center for Medical Progress videos to dramatically tighten access to abortion. “Activists have been calling it the ‘war on women,’” Redden writes. “But the onslaught of new abortion restrictions has been so successful, so strategically designed, and so well coordinated that the war in many places has essentially been lost.”