Anti-abortion activists rallied in cities across the country in recent days, invigorated by the release of videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the procurement of fetal tissue for research.
For the activists, the videos provided a new – and still unfolding – source of indignation. They accuse Planned Parenthood of profiting from the sale of aborted fetuses, a claim Planned Parenthood denies.
In Washington, Republicans called on Congress to withhold federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and GOP lawmakers in several states opened investigations of their own. Democrats pushed back by focusing scrutiny on the producer of the videos, a 26-year-old man involved in anti-abortion causes since his high school days in Davis.
But on the sidewalks outside Planned Parenthood clinics, familiar strokes of the anti-abortion movement – wooden rosaries, amplifiers, faded signs telling women “it’s not too late to change your mind” – belied the activists’ deeper hope that controversial videos might change people’s minds more broadly on abortion.
In that effort, there has been little evidence of success.
“I know in a lot of ways I’m just preaching to the choir,” Robert Hale, of the Arden Church of the Nazarene, told about 200 protesters in front of a Planned Parenthood in Sacramento on Tuesday. “But we’ve got to start this movement from somewhere. It’s time for the people of God to rise up with some righteous indignation.”
The recent videos, in which activists pose as biotech company representatives while secretly recording Planned Parenthood doctors, have put Planned Parenthood on the defensive. Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, apologized for a staff member’s “tone and statements,” and the group hired SKDKnickerbocker, a firm that works with Democratic candidates, to help manage public relations.
But Planned Parenthood has weathered video stings before, including from an anti-abortion group that sent pimp and prostitute actors into Planned Parenthood offices in 2011. And despite sharp divisions on the issue, public opinion on abortion in the United States has remained relatively constant for decades.
“I think they definitely have a major PR problem on their hands right now,” Dave Gilliard, a Republican who works on congressional and legislative campaigns, said of Planned Parenthood. “Ultimately, though, it’s probably not going to have any effect on public policy.”
“The whole abortion debate, politically at least, is long-ago decided,” he said.
The whole abortion debate, politically at least, is long-ago decided
Dave Gilliard, a Republican who works on congressional and legislative campaigns
In liberal-leaning California, nearly 70 percent of adults say the government should not interfere with access to abortion, according to a Public Policy Institute of California Poll last year. That number is similar to majorities registered in Field Poll surveys since the 1980s.
“It seems to be an issue that’s pretty much settled in most Californians’ minds,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the PPIC. “If they’re for it or against it, you know, these opinions are hardened over the course of time.”
The videos released this month were produced by the Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress, whose founder, David Daleiden, took up anti-abortion causes as a teenager in Davis.
According to an online archive from when he worked at the anti-abortion group Live Action, Daleiden became involved in anti-abortion efforts at age 15 and founded an anti-abortion club at Davis Senior High School.
He participated in debate and Young Republicans and was named a student most likely to become a future staff member at the high school, according to a 2007 yearbook.
Beneath his senior portrait, Daleiden included this message: “Vote pro-life. It’s what God wants you to do.”
Daleiden did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did members of his family. Kyle Kinneberg, who was involved in anti-abortion activism with Daleiden while in college at Claremont McKenna College, said in an email that Daleiden’s videos are “the first fruits of David’s professional activity now.”
On Tuesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking release of any video of leaders of StemExpress, a Placerville company that provides fetal tissue to researchers.
On the Center for Medical Progress website, Daleiden describes himself as a “citizen journalist with nearly a decade of experience in conducting investigative research on the abortion industry.” He has released three videos and told Fox News this week that he plans to release about nine more in coming weeks.
Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said the level of planning and deception required to produce Daleiden’s undercover videos suggest a “more organized and coordinated” assault on Planned Parenthood than previous efforts.
“The folks behind this,” she said, are “deadly, deadly serious about what they’re trying to achieve.”
Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said anti-abortion activists have become more sophisticated in recent years by moving away from grotesque photographs of aborted fetuses to images “that convey a sense of humanity.”
But Pitney, who said he did not know Daleiden from his college days, said the effect of the videos is only a “talking point,” not a cause for change in an electorate that is “too dug in” on the issue on both sides.
So far, the most pronounced effect of the videos has been on partisan politics. Released in the run-up to a presidential election year, the videos infuriated conservative Republicans, and GOP candidates called for investigations of Planned Parenthood.
In California, Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, of Bakersfield, and six other Republican Assembly members urged state Attorney General Kamala Harris in a letter this week to investigate Planned Parenthood’s “relatively unknown practice of letting for-profit businesses harvest the organs of babies it has aborted.”
Harris’ office said Wednesday that she is reviewing the letter. But the attorney general, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said last week that her office is investigating the other side, including whether Daleiden’s group created a phony entity in California. Democrats across the country have moved to frame the video controversy as a broader attack on health care access for women.
At the Planned Parenthood protest in Sacramento on Tuesday, clinic workers hung a tarp between their building and the sidewalk, and they played loud music to obscure the protest speeches.
The pop sounds of Pink and Imagine Dragons played from the Planned Parenthood parking lot as Auxiliary Bishop Myron Cotta of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento derided what he called a “disregard for the vulnerable, the innocent.” He urged protesters to pray for an end to abortion, and to continue protesting the practice.
Later, however, Cotta acknowledged the political rigidity of the issue.
“This never ends,” he said. “There’s always confrontation, and it never ends.”