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Presidential Candidates Weigh-In On Planned Parenthood Controversy

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's explore the political effects of a sting of Planned Parenthood. That organization is a target because it provides abortions. And we should warn you that many people will find the accusations we're about to discuss disturbing. A video includes undercover footage of a Planned Parenthood meeting. It also features a woman who says she worked for a company that harvested organs from fetuses.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I thought I was going to be just drawing blood, not procuring tissue from aborted fetuses.

MONTAGNE: Planned Parenthood leaders say the videos are heavily edited. And they say they violated no laws. One question now is how politicians respond. It's predictable that Republicans have denounced Planned Parenthood while Democrats have defended it. But the response is actually more complex than that. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: An anti-Planned Parenthood rally outside the Capitol yesterday drew dozens of protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Hey, hey, ho, ho, Planned Parenthood's got to go.

MCCAMMON: And a few presidential hopefuls. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul referred to a video released earlier this month by the antiabortion Center for Medical Progress. It shows a Planned Parenthood doctor meeting over lunch with activists posing as representatives of a company that handles fetal tissue donations for medical research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES CAND/SEN RAND PAUL: This callous disregard expressed over wine and cheese should inflame and infuriate us all. And we should stop once and for all any penny of money going to Planned Parenthood.

MCCAMMON: Federal funds for most abortions already are illegal. But Planned Parenthood gets public money for services like health screenings for low income women. Also taking the mic was Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. He directed jabs at the Democratic frontrunner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES CAND/SEN TED CRUZ: I call upon our friends in the mainstream media to ask Hillary Clinton if she is pleased that she has so much passionate support from Planned Parenthood, and entity that appears to be a national criminal enterprise.

MCCAMMON: So far, Clinton has defended the organization. In this clip from CBS News at a campaign stop in South Carolina last week, Clinton said the attacks on Planned Parenthood are an attack on women's rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS NEWS BROADCAST)

PRES CAND HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: And I think it is unfortunate that Planned Parenthood has been the object of such a concerted attack for so many years.

MCCAMMON: Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards echoed that idea and said this on ABC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

CECILE RICHARDS: Planned Parenthood does not at all profit from fetal tissue donation, which is an important element of health care research in this country.

MCCAMMON: But if candidates on the right are rushing to attack Planned Parenthood, other Democratic hopefuls aren't exactly lining up to defend the organization. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has said that Richards was right to apologize for the tone of a Planned Parenthood doctor featured in one of the videos. It's a tricky issue for the left, says Rachel Caufield, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.

RACHEL CAUFIELD: I think it creates an environment where the pro-choice supporters now have to be in a position to justify some of the practices of Planned Parenthood.

MCCAMMON: Caufield says she's not surprised that Clinton, who's frequently addressed women's issues on the campaign trail, took a stronger tone in support of Planned Parenthood than Sanders.

CAUFIELD: He took a little bit more measured tone and was less willing to defend Planned Parenthood outright, recognized that perhaps this is not a practice that Americans are accustomed to hearing about and not something that they're particularly comfortable with.

MCCAMMON: Regardless, they're going to hear more about it. The Senate is expected take up a proposal to defund Planned Parenthood before Congress leaves for the August recess. And the issue is likely to come up in next week's Republican debate. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.