In a five-hour hearing, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards fell under the focused scrutiny of Republican legislators Tuesday as members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioned her on the ongoing investigation into the organization’s healthcare work and Medicaid reimbursements.
However she maintained that the organization, which has been a target of the GOP, has broken no laws and insisted that the charges against it were “outrageous.”
Committee chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, accused Planned Parenthood of engagement in political activity, arguing it does not need $500 million in federal funding for healthcare. "That's money that's not going to women's health care…it's a political organization," Chaffetz said.
He drilled that the hearing was not directly related to the videos released over the summer by the Center for Medical Progress purporting to show the organization violating fetal tissue donation laws. Monday, Michigan became the sixth state to find no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood in their process of obtaining fetal tissue for donation. In her testimony, Richards said that only two of their 59 health centers procure fetal tissue from abortions. The founder of the Center for Medical Progress was not present at the hearing and is under investigation by the state of California.
Previously, Planned Parenthood submitted the findings of a forensic report that found the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress had been heavily edited and contends that the organization has been harassing Planned Parenthood for several years.
"It is clear that they acted fraudulently and unethically — and perhaps illegally," Richards said of the Center for Medical Progress. "Yet it is Planned Parenthood, not Mr. Daleiden, [founder of the Center for Medical Progress] that is currently subject to four separate congressional investigations."
In her opening testimony, Richards noted, “the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives allows doctors and clinicians at our health centers to provide birth control, cancer screenings, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.”
When pressed about the organization’s political activities, Richards explained that for the 99-year-old organization, advocacy and healthcare go “hand in hand” because of the recent attacks on access to abortion and contraception. According to Richards’ testimony, one in five women in the United States visits the health center for care.
“Medicaid reimburses us for the preventive health services we provide. The Department of Health and Human Services conducts routine audits of the Medicaid program to ensure that these funds are used appropriately,” explained Richards. “And the same is true for Title X, the federal family planning program, which was signed into law by President Nixon.”
Committee members from both parties questioned Richards on the organization’s health care operations, salaries, and processes related to abortion care. Throughout a combative exchange, Rep. Mia Love, another Utah Republican, questioned Richards on the costs of abortions, however due to the Hyde Amendment, Planned Parenthood is currently unable to use federal funds to cover abortions unless the patient was raped, a survivor of incest, or in the case of the patient’s health.
Love took issue with the fact that the federal government reimbursed Planned Parenthood for Medicaid patients’ services. “There is no reason why we can't provide those options elsewhere, where people can have their choice as to where they go.”
Rep. Blake Farenthold said that women could go to a number of health centers other than Planned Parenthood, but noted that some of the clinics he was referring to were pediatric centers and “men’s health centers.” In another testy exchange, Representative Diane Black R-Tennessee, a former nurse, asked whether Richards believed that abortion was healthcare, to which Richards responded, “Abortion is a legal service in this country,” and continued to explain that abortion is a part of women’s healthcare.
“Planned Parenthood serves over 370,000 Black women across the country every year,” Angela Ferrell Zabala, Director of African American Leadership and Engagement, told EBONY.com. “Blocking access to critical reproductive health care services would widen the gap in our community’s already disproportionately lower socioeconomic and healthcare outcomes.” A study from the Guttmacher Institute has found that while Black women tend to access abortion at a disproportionate number to white women, lack of access to contraception and healthcare are the cause.
Despite the attacks from Congressional conservatives, Democrats defended Richards and questioned the reason for the hearing.
During her statements, Rep. Brenda Lawrence called the hearing “exhausting” and “insulting” and reiterated that Planned Parenthood receives reimbursement for services to Medicaid patients and explained that if there weren’t Medicaid patients going to Planned Parenthood, there would not be reimbursements. Later, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman expressed confusion over the purpose of the hearing, whether it was about the videos or the federal funding.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett also questioned the legitimacy of the hearing since representatives from the Center for Medical Progress were not available for questioning at the hearing. She also noted that her district does not have a Planned Parenthood health center, but wished that it did because she knows “the good work that Planned Parenthood does.”
In her closing comments, Richards remarked, "We need less judgment and more empathy in this country for people who make different [healthcare] decisions."
More hearings on the defunding of Planned Parenthood are expected over the coming months.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and a member of Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women around critical social justice issues. Her work has appeared on the BBC, TIME, Salon, The Guardian, and Fusion. Bracey Sherman earned her Master's degree in Public Administration from Cornell University and sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RBraceySherman.