Fact-Finding Hearing Turns into Hours of Planned Parenthood Bashing

Planned Parenthood supporters rally  at the Texas Capitol.
Planned Parenthood supporters rally at the Texas Capitol.

It was billed as a fact-finding hearing by Texas lawmakers, a closer look at state law prompted by the recent release of undercover, edited videos purportedly showing Planned Parenthood illegally profiting from fetal remains.

But on Wednesday, a panel of Texas senators spent almost five hours denouncing abortion, grilling state health officials on an issue they don’t have authority over, and discussing fetal tissue donation practices at Planned Parenthood, although Texas affiliates have repeatedly said they don’t currently participate in such a program.

Federal law permits the utilization of fetal tissue and organs for medical research, and organizations that donate the remains may charge a small fee for overhead costs, such as shipping, but cannot make a profit. The videos were released by the Center for Medical Progress, which has ties to major anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which convened Wednesday as part of a statewide investigation, heard mostly from anti-abortion organizations and state officials, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, a strident opponent of abortion. Both Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas were invited to the hearing, but declined to testify in person. An attorney for Planned Parenthood did submit written testimony on the group’s behalf.

The hearing opened with questions for Paxton, who told lawmakers that his office is conducting civil and criminal investigations into Planned Parenthood.

“Our goal is to find out if anyone, anywhere in Texas, has violated the law, and if so, to seek legal redress,” Paxton said.

He offered few details, but said his staff visited Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston as part of its probe. The organization acknowledged this week that it donated fetal tissue remains to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 2010 for research purposes, but hasn’t done so since.

Paxton told the committee his office received an undercover video taped at the Houston-based Planned Parenthood but has no plans to release it to the public. Legislators have copies of the footage as part of the investigation, he said. Paxton wouldn’t elaborate on the video’s contents but said the footage is “consistent” with those released in the last few weeks.

While expressing horror at the videos, Paxton had a broader message.

“More than any misdeeds involving the sale of aborted baby parts is a fundamental truth: the true abomination of all of this is the institution of abortion,” he said. “At a minimum, the people involved [in the videos] project a cold, calculating, almost inhumane indifference to the lives they treat as a product they are attempting to sell. At worst, they may represent a violation of state or federal laws. But we should ever lose sight of the fact that as long as abortion is legal in the United States, these types of horrors will continue.”

Absent from the list of invited witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing were representatives from the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas Tech University, the only two Texas entities that receive federal funding to utilize fetal tissue for research. Their absence, however, was not lost on Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who pressed Paxton about whether he intends to include the institutions in his investigation.

“We do need to hear from the universities that are doing the research with fetal tissue that’s permitted under state and federal law so that all of us have a full picture of what this entails,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also encouraged Paxton to investigate the secret taping at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and whether any federal or state laws — such as patient privacy — were broken.

No state agency has the authority to regulate fetal tissue donation, state health officials told the committee.

Kathy Perkins, an assistant commissioner with the Department of State Health Services who oversees regulatory programs, said her staff conducts unannounced inspections of licensed abortion clinics every 12 to 14 months. The agency lacks the authority to inspect a facility’s fetal tissue and organ donation practices but does oversee the storage and disposal of fetal remains.

So far, she said, of the complaints she has received in recent years over the handling of remains, her agency hasn’t found evidence to “substantiate” them.

Abby Johnson, the darling of the anti-abortion movement in Texas, said that when she was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, she witnessed a physician alter the abortion procedure for the purpose of selling certain body parts for profit. Several lawmakers noted that she quit Planned Parenthood six years ago.

Johnson went as far as to allege that Perkins, who has worked at the state health department for eight years, lied when she testified that her agency conducts “unannounced” inspections of abortion facilities. Johnson told the committee that as a Planned Parenthood employee, she knew when the state inspectors would be visiting the clinic ahead of time. Perkins told the committee she did not lie in her testimony.

In many ways, the hearing provided a preview of the anti-abortion legislation that could come up in the 2017 legislative session.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, hinted that lawmakers may file bills in 2017 giving state agencies more authority to inspect donation protocol.

Texas Right to Life called on the Texas Legislature to “defund Planned Parenthood,” echoing the cries of anti-abortion activists who rallied at the Capitol this week. This year, lawmakers kicked the health care provider out of the state Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, which provides cancer screenings to poor women. Planned Parenthood is also prohibited from participating in state-funded family planning and preventive care programs for poor women.

Texas Right to Life also urged the Legislature to pass a “Dismemberment Abortion Ban,” which would prohibit the surgical abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. Oklahoma and Kansas have similar laws on the books.

Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied that the organization is illegally profiting from fetal tissue donation. Since the first video was released, the organization has called the Center for Medical Progress “extreme,” hell-bent on perpetuating lies about Planned Parenthood.

Melanie Linton, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, called Wednesday’s Senate hearing “a forum to air anti-abortion views and further a political agenda to end access to safe, legal abortion,” she said in a statement. “This was a sham hearing and had nothing to do with women’s health care.”

There is no clear timeline for Texas’ investigation of Planned Parenthood, and more hearings may be scheduled, senators said.

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

Published at 5:54 pm CST