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.

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