You'd think the public and the press would be more skeptical of right-wing video muckraking after the hatchet job that was done on Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, and after judges reviewed the unedited video evidence against ACORN and found the group had done nothing illegal. Sherrod was forced to resign her USDA job, and ACORN was widely discredited, thanks to heavily and misleadingly edited videos were circulated by conservative activists on the Internet.
And now here we go again.
This time the target is Planned Parenthood. An anti-abortion group called Live Action sent actors posing as sex traffickers to Planned Parenthood clinics in at least six states. These pretend pimps and panderers banter with receptionists who appear numbingly oblivious to the actors' feigned employment. The actors say they are seeking information about how under-age sex workers might be screened for diseases, for contraception and possibly abortions. In one recording, the actor/sex trafficker claims that "we just got them in" and that the girls in question "don't speak English."
In one of the videos, shot in a New Jersey clinic, an employee appears all too eager to help the supposed sex-ring operator get his under-aged sex workers in for STD checkups and treatment, and to recommend a place where they could get abortions - all with minimal fuss and red tape. Never does the Planned Parenthood employee betray any opprobrium toward the pimp, and at one point she appears to give advice about how these girls can work in the two-week recovery period after an abortion.
It's potent stuff, yet the video is also very obviously edited. Planned Parenthood subsequently fired an employee and issued a statement that read in part: "Planned Parenthood insists on the highest standards of care, and safeguards the trusted relationship we have with patients, families and communities. What appears on edited tapes made public today is not consistent with Planned Parenthood's practices, and is under review."
The problem for Live Action and its president Lila Rose is that the videos do more to illustrate what is right with Planned Parenthood than what is wrong. Even in the instance where the worker was fired, superiors were alerted after the actors left, and Planned Parenthood followed the right protocols. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder warning of the possibility of an inter-state sex trafficking ring and requesting federal investigation. The letter is dated January 18 - weeks before the videos were rolled out for public viewing in an attempt to vilify the organization.
All Planned Parenthood had to do next was what it has already done: It ordered a retraining of staff and issued clear instructions that future violators of protocol will be fired. End of non-drama.
Live Action hoped to bolster attempts in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood of federal monies that go toward helping low-income women with family planning and other health care. The federal funds do not provide abortions.
"Our tax dollars are funding Child Molestation, Sex Slave Rings and Genocide," shouted one e-mail that landed in my in-box. What followed was an attempt to repackage old slanders against Planned Parenthood with the new videos.
The fervor in some quarters against abortion often casts aside the good work Planned Parenthood accomplishes for the reproductive health of low-income women, including cervical cancer screening and tests for STDs. I oppose abortion, but I have no problem with contraception. In fact, the best way to prevent abortions is by stopping unwanted pregnancies in the first place. And Planned Parenthood is a leading organization in that regard, through its more than 800 clinics.
Am I conveniently discounting the fact that the group provides abortions, in light of the other work it does? Guilty as charged.
Here's where I get judgmental. I don't see organizations like Live Action doing much to help the poor, the sex-trafficked or low-income women. No, it releases videos in the hope of undercutting Planned Parenthood's funding as a way to attack its abortion practices, but it also seems OK with imploding its abilities to help the very women they claim to be protecting. Their approach doesn't make pragmatic sense.
As to the supposed complicity of Planned Parenthood in the sex trade or other nefarious enterprises, the Live Action videos have proved nothing beyond the fact that the organization may have hired an employee in New Jersey with disastrously poor judgment. But even that conclusion ought to be reserved for a real inquiry into the facts.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.