Commentary Law and Policy

‘Farce’ Not Strong Enough Word to Describe Outrageous Planned Parenthood Hearing in Texas Legislature

Andrea Grimes

Texas lawmakers spent four-and-a-half hours “investigating” whether an entity that does not provide the legal service of fetal tissue donation has violated any laws while it doesn’t provide that legal service.

See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

Before I get into what transpired during Wednesday’s Texas legislative hearing in front of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee concerning fetal tissue donations—or, the hearing that was ostensibly concerned with fetal tissue donations—I want to establish a few facts.

  • Abortion has been legal across the United States since 1973.
  • Collecting fetal tissue for medical research purposes is legal under federal law.
  • Neither Texas lawmakers nor the Texas attorney general has jurisdiction over enforcing federal law concerning tissue donations.
  • Medical providers can be reimbursed for certain costs associated with collecting tissue for research purposes with the informed consent of the researchers and the pregnant donor.
  • Recording someone without their consent in the State of California is illegal.
  • Misrepresenting the nature of your nonprofit entity to the Internal Revenue Service and to state tax regulators is illegal.
  • No Planned Parenthood affiliate in Texas currently collects fetal tissue for medical research purposes.
  • In 2010, Texas’ Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast affiliate partnered with the University of Texas Medical Branch to provide fetal tissue for a study on miscarriage. That partnership is now over.

I lay out those facts because Texas lawmakers and state leaders seemed to be in very serious want of them throughout the four-and-a-half hours they spent Wednesday “investigating whether state or federal laws are being broken by Planned Parenthood and/or its affiliates in Texas in regards to the donation and/or sale of fetal tissue.” Even as anti-choice lawmakers called for an open-minded look at Planned Parenthood’s practices, they crowed about the “abomination” that is legal abortion, admitted to wanting to entirely dismantle Planned Parenthood as an entity, and invited no pro-choice groups to testify in front of the committee.

The goal of the investigation, and the legislature’s authority to do anything with any information gathered in the course of it, was unclear. Texas lawmakers are not members of law enforcement entities. They have no authority to enforce federal law. The state health department, too, does not have any oversight over fetal tissue donation.

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Planned Parenthood, along with a number of pro-choice and progressive folks in Texas, used the hashtag #ShamHearingTX while live-tweeting the hearing. I don’t believe the word “sham” goes far enough, and yet I struggle to describe the affair. “Farce” is far too weak. “Joke” hardly conveys the seriousness with which anti-abortion lawmakers approach putting Planned Parenthood out of business. “Theatre” does a disservice to thespians the world over.

What transpired Wednesday in the state capitol was a public strategy meeting wherein anti-abortion lawmakers, the Texas attorney general, and the anti-choice lobbyists who direct state policy convened to openly discuss their plan for making legal abortion a thing of the past in Texas.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, the chair of the senate HHS Committee, convened the hearing after a shell group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of deceptively edited videos showing Planned Parenthood doctors discussing fetal tissue donation. What the edited videos don’t show, and the full videos do, are those doctors emphasizing that they do not and cannot profit off of the collection of fetal tissue for medical research.

Nevertheless, Texas lawmakers have an extended and ongoing beef with Planned Parenthood, which they have spent years carefully crafting into a blanket policy against giving any state funds whatsoever to the health-care provider. In 2013, Planned Parenthood was prevented from participating in the state’s Texas Women’s Health Program. Earlier this year, the organization was banned from providing care to low-income Texans who receive cancer screenings and treatment through the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Screenings program. Once that ban kicks in, Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas will no longer receive any state funds; Planned Parenthood of South Texas doesn’t receive any apart from what the state might pay toward Medicaid.

Schwertner would have been remiss, then, if in the service of this beef, he did not take the opportunity to put on a full production of outrage with all possible attendant bells and whistles. Especially considering the Texas attorney general’s office has also launched an “investigation” into Planned Parenthood, and it was revealed during Wednesday’s hearing that the state’s Health and Human Services agency is conducting its own investigation.

But that doesn’t make what happened on Wednesday any less appalling in its wastefulness, legislative aggression, and outright bias.

It was an exercise in the glorification of abortion stigma. It was a contest to see who could use the phrase “baby parts” most often. It was a parade of partisanship: an outright gabfest against science, against reason, against medicine, against freedom.

What it was not, in any sense of the word: an investigation.

And how could it be an investigation? There’s nothing to investigate. Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas don’t currently collect fetal tissue for donation in medical research. Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast did, in 2010, partner with a state university research program that used fetal tissue donations to study miscarriages. Planned Parenthood of South Texas and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas have never participated in donations. “Baby parts,” no matter what anti-choicers keep putting on hashtags, belong to infants, not fetuses or embryos or zygotes. If the committee truly believes that anyone in Texas is murdering born children for profit, much more than an interim legislative hearing would be necessary and essential.

But Texas lawmakers spent four-and-a-half hours “investigating” whether an entity that does not provide the legal service of fetal tissue donation has violated any laws while it doesn’t provide that legal service. For that matter, neither the lawmakers nor any of the “investigating” parties have any jurisdiction whatsoever over the tissue donation laws in question. The committee heard from the attorney general and from representatives from the state health and human services agency, both of which admitted as much outright.

Of course, Schwertner and his fellow anti-choice lawmakers must realize how preposterous and wasteful that is, which could explain why ultimately the bulk of the conversation was concerned not with examining current instances of fetal tissue donation by Planned Parenthood affiliates, of which there are none, but with the idea of legal abortion care writ large, and with lawmakers’ personal, and extreme, dislike of Planned Parenthood.

Indeed, under the guise of reporting to the committee on his office’s own “investigation”, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton said that “the true abomination in all of this is the institution of abortion.”

This was not a hearing about fetal tissue. It was a grandstanding event for anti-abortion politicians who would force every pregnant person to carry their pregnancy to term, every time.

In fact, Schwertner said early in the hearing that he refused to accept written testimony from Planned Parenthood affiliates, and that Planned Parenthood’s decision not to testify in person “shows, in some ways, their true colors.”

Some time following the “true colors” remark and several other interjections from Schwertner sneering at Planned Parenthood’s refusal to testify, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood walked to the dais to submit her clients’ written testimony in person.

The testimony she handed over was brief: Planned Parenthood said it wouldn’t appear to testify because it doesn’t have anything to testify about. Because the Texas affiliates don’t collect fetal tissue for research purposes.

But Schwertner snapped at her for not testifying on Planned Parenthood’s behalf, or for not compelling her clients to testify. She said she would do neither, given the fact that the organization is under active investigation. Schwertner huffed in response, asking what her clients had asked her to do—effectively demanding she violate attorney-client privilege. She turned in the testimony, which was accepted, reiterating that in her best legal judgment, it would be inadvisable for her clients to testify at the hearing.

Schwertner did not seem nearly so offended by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s reluctance to provide the details of his investigation. Paxton repeatedly cited confidentiality concerns when dodging inquiries from Democratic senators—three on the HHS committee and one, Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), who joined the hearing of her own accord—about whether he would look into the CMP having violated the law in the course of their nonprofit formation and undercover filming, saying that he could not reveal who his office is speaking to. Schwertner never questioned Paxton’s decision not to share that information.

Except that Paxton did divulge conversations with Planned Parenthood. At length. Specifically describing fetal tissue that employees of his office had observed the medical provider storing at their Houston location as part of their normal operations providing legal abortion care in Texas—not as part of a fetal tissue donation program.

Later, state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), a member of the HHS committee, said that she opposed fetal tissue donation after legal abortion “categorically,” and that Planned Parenthood’s operations must end: “Perhaps they are too big, they are a monopoly and they need to be broken up.”

Planned Parenthood does indeed provide the vast majority of abortion services in Texas, and certainly would continue to do so if the state’s omnibus anti-abortion law ever goes into full effect, requiring all abortion providers to operate as ambulatory surgical centers. Planned Parenthood is the only provider that can afford to make the medically unnecessary upgrades the law requires.

If Planned Parenthood is a monopoly in Texas, Donna Campbell—an ardent supporter of HB 2 and a co-sponsor of the bill in the senate—and her colleagues have only themselves to thank for it.

And indeed, that is where these long-running political machinations really kick into gear: Over the last five years or so, anti-abortion lawmakers have engineered a reproductive health-care landscape in Texas that not only takes contraception and cancer screenings away from the most vulnerable Texans, but which ensures only large entities like Planned Parenthood have the resources to comply with the abortion laws they’ve passed. These lawmakers have long done so under the advisement and direction of anti-abortion lobby groups.

Now that they’ve got Planned Parenthood in a corner, they’re using a politically motivated smear campaign from yet another anti-abortion group as an opportunity to deal the final blow on access to comprehensive reproductive care in Texas.

Of course, everyone wants in on CMP’s attack videos. Schwertner asked representatives from four different anti-abortion lobby groups to testify—about what, exactly, remains unclear, since none of the witnesses currently work at legal abortion providers in Texas—at Wednesday’s hearing, and they happily complied.

If Schwertner asked any pro-choice groups to join the hearing, none came forward either to say so or to testify. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas’ executive director Heather Busby told me she’d had no communication from Schwertner’s office.

And why would she? Schwertner and the committee aren’t conducting an “investigation,” which requires balanced input from a variety of stakeholders. They’re going on a witch hunt, and they’re using anti-abortion activists to do their work for them, demonstrating the inappropriately close relationships between paid anti-abortion lobbyists and state lawmakers.

During the hearing, ex-Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson, who left her position at the now-shuttered Bryan, Texas, clinic in 2009, testified that the attorney general’s office had recruited her to do private investigations of abortion facilities by calling clinics to ask for appointments in order to determine facility capacity during legal challenges to the state’s abortion laws. Johnson said she never identified herself to clinics during her investigations, but did provide her findings back to the attorney general’s office.

That revelation was shocking enough, considering Johnson is a paid lobbyist for anti-choice groups and neither a medical professional, nor an abortion provider, nor a legal expert—though Johnson said she wasn’t sure whether she’d worked for current AG Ken Paxton or past AG and current governor Greg Abbott, and couldn’t remember who at the office had recruited her. But Johnson then proceeded to say that a commissioner from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) lied about her testimony earlier in the hearing.

Johnson claimed that she always knew when DSHS was coming to inspect their clinics when she worked at Planned Parenthood more than six years ago; DSHS regulations commissioner Kathy Perkins said all inspections are unannounced.

Both of those things can’t be true, so Perkins was called back up to the table to testify about her past testimony, in effect to dare Johnson to call her a liar, again.

Are you exhausted by this charade? Do you wonder what any of it has to do with “investigating” whether Planned Parenthood donates fetal tissue for research? You are not alone. Even mainstream media reporters were stymied by the hearing’s veer away from any semblance of germanity.

This is my ultimate concern: Politically, men like Ken Paxton and Charles Schwertner can’t afford to conduct such high-profile “investigations” and come up empty-handed. I feel certain that these “investigations” will yield something, which is not to say that they will yield evidence of illegal or criminal activity. Most likely they’ll find some technical violations of existing statutes to do with paperwork or something similar, and will attempt to shut down Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers on that basis.

And you can put money on this: The 2017 legislative session in Texas will be rife with new proposals to regulate which procedures legal abortion providers (if there are any left by then) can use to perform abortion, in addition to new proposals banning fetal tissue donation entirely in Texas.

I know this because Texas Right to Life’s legislative policy director, John Seago, laid out a litany of such suggestions to lawmakers during his testimony at the hearing as to how to further regulate abortion out of existence. If anything is clear in the mess that is Texas right now, it’s that lawmakers will do the express bidding of anti-choice groups that want to end legal abortion care by any means necessary.

Mark your calendars.

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

News Politics

David Daleiden Brags About Discredited Smear Campaign at GOP Convention

Amy Littlefield

Daleiden’s claims about the videos’ impact on Planned Parenthood contrast with a recent poll showing that support for Planned Parenthood has increased in the aftermath of the Center for Medical Progress' anti-choice smear videos.

David Daleiden, a year after he began releasing secretly recorded and deceptively edited videos claiming to show Planned Parenthood officials were illegally profiting from fetal tissue donation, appeared to boast about the videos’ purported impact at a luncheon during the Republican National Convention (RNC).

“I think it’s very clear that one year later, Planned Parenthood is on the brink, they’re on the precipice,” Daleiden said at the event, co-hosted by the Family Research Council Action and the Susan B. Anthony List. “Their client numbers are down by at least 10 percent, their abortion numbers are down, their revenues are down and their clinics are closing.”

The luncheon took place at the Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, near the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Republican National Convention is underway. Also in attendance at Wednesday’s luncheon were a slate of Republican anti-choice politicians, including Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, and North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx.

Daleiden—who is under felony indictment in Texas and the subject of lawsuits in California for his actions in filming the undercover videos—touted efforts to defund Planned Parenthood by state Republican legislators and governors, who used the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) smear videos as a basis for investigations. Those defunding attempts have been blocked by federal court order in several cases.

He celebrated Planned Parenthood’s announcement that it would close two and consolidate four health centers in Indiana, an effort Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky said would “allow patients to receive affordable, quality health care with extended hours at the newly consolidated locations.” Daleiden made no mention of last month’s Supreme Court decision overturning abortion restrictions in Texas, which dealt the anti-choice movement its worst legal defeat in decades.

“One year ago now, from the release of those videos, I think it’s actually safe to say that Planned Parenthood has never been more on the defensive in their entire 100 years of history, and the pro-life movement has never been stronger,” Daleiden said.

While his tone was victorious, Daleiden appeared to avoid directly claiming credit for the supposed harm done to Planned Parenthood. In a federal racketeering lawsuit brought against Daleiden and his co-defendants, Planned Parenthood has argued that Daleiden should compensate the organization for the harm that his smear campaign caused.

Republican congressional lawmakers have held at least five hearings and as many defunding votes against Planned Parenthood in the year since the videos’ release. Not a single state or federal investigation has produced evidence of wrongdoing.

Daleiden’s claims about the videos’ impact on Planned Parenthood contrast with a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that support for Planned Parenthood has increased in the aftermath of the CMP smear videos.