See more of our coverage on recent attacks against Planned Parenthood here.
Since the Center for Medical Progress started releasing videos making lurid, false accusations that Planned Parenthood is selling fetal body parts, most of the media has described the footage and conservatives’ reaction to it with words like “misleading” and “deceptive.” It’s not that these words are wrong—I’ve used them myself—but really, they end up wildly understating the extent of the misinformation here. The better terms would be “hoax” or, ideally, “conspiracy theory,” such as saying the moon landing was a ruse or that Barack Obama faked his American citizenship.
It’s not just because there are a bunch of false accusations being leveled without any supporting evidence—and plenty of evidence to the contrary. It’s that, like any good conspiracy theory, there’s an intricate narrative being spun that is as bananas as it is complicated. Most politicians jumping on Planned Parenthood have not been explicit about this theory. For some, this is possibly because talking about all the details makes you sound like you’re about to start raving about alien abductions. But Marco Rubio, bless him, went full Infowars during an interview with a local TV station in Iowa, where he explained that abortion is an elaborate conspiracy to, well, just read:
Because now what you’ve done is you’ve created an industry. Now what you’ve done is you’ve created an incentive for people to be pushed into abortions so that those tissues can be harvested and sold for a profit.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Rubio is suggesting, in other words, that Planned Parenthood is trying to entice women into having abortions in order to profit off fetal tissue. The reporter gave him an opportunity to back off of this claim, but instead, he adjusted his tinfoil hat and doubled down:
If you go to one of these centers, young women are provided very few options. In many places, they’re not told anything about, for example, adoption services that might be available to them. … In essence, you come in and it’s already predetermined. … This is what this place does. It provides abortions, and we are going to channel you in that direction.
I just think you’ve created an industry now … a situation where very much, you’ve created an incentive for people not just to look forward to having more abortions, but being able to sell that fetal tissue for purposes—these centers—for purposes of making a profit off it, as you’ve seen in some of these Planned Parenthood affiliates.
He did seem to grasp that going full throttle and accusing women of getting abortions for fun and profit is off-message—the marching orders right now are to pretend that women getting abortions are just too stupid to know what that they secretly want to have the baby. So instead, he just accused Planned Parenthood of pressuring them instead. So that the nonprofit can profit. By donating fetal tissue at no profit to themselves. Because no woman would actually ever choose abortion on her own, and so it must be a conspiracy, and hey, did you know that the CIA plotted with the mafia to assassinate JFK?
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Rubio. It’s not like he made this conspiracy theory up, after all. This is exactly the story being pushed in the videos, right down to the insinuation that women are being tricked somehow into giving up their fetuses for this dastardly medical research that is no doubt being performed on the island of Dr. Moreau. Every single politician who attacks Planned Parenthood—even after multiple investigations have failed to find evidence of the organization’s wrongdoing—is perpetuating a conspiracy theory as well, though they tend to stick to the talking point about “selling” fetal tissue amid all the lurid language.
Another sign that you’re dealing with a full-fledged conspiracy theory is that it just keeps growing, getting more and more intricate. The fetal tissue accusations are actually just the latest wrinkle in an increasingly bizarre conspiracy theory propagated by the religious right, about how Planned Parenthood is trying to trick women into getting abortions so it can bathe in all the supposed cash the procedure makes.
Various believers have different ideas about how in-depth the plot goes. Some proponents, like Rubio, only insinuate that Planned Parenthood bullies pregnant women into abortions after luring them into clinics.
But others go so far as to argue that Planned Parenthood is actually tricking women into getting pregnant in the first place, so they can get that supposedly sweet abortion money. In some cases, they accuse them of selling faulty contraception. More commonly, however, they literally accuse Planned Parenthood of teaching young people to want sex. In this week’s podcast, I play clips from the American Life League, a group that seems to think teens and college students would have no interest in sex if Planned Parenthood didn’t tell them masturbation is okay.
Iowa Right to Life promotes the same idea, saying that Planned Parenthood “pushes teenagers” to “oral sex, mutual masturbation and erotic massage” as well as “anal sex, ‘fingering,’ multiple partners, and the use of sex toys and pornography.” Because no one would even think of looking at a picture of a naked lady or putting their mouth on someone’s genitals if a nonprofit medical clinic didn’t tell them to. Iowa RTL also promotes the idea that Planned Parenthood deliberately sells “faulty condoms” in an effort to trick teenagers to “increase their sexual activity” so they can do more abortions.
(Yes, it’s amusing that many of the behaviors that they accuse Planned Parenthood of promoting in the “get teens pregnant” conspiracy are ones that can’t get you pregnant. But that’s far from the only logic fail that crops up in this elaborate conspiracy theory.)
Conspiracy theories are an unfortunate but longstanding feature of American politics. The one hammering on Planned Parenthood is no different, really, from pro-gun people who argue that the Sandy Hook shooting was faked or, from the left, that George W. Bush orchestrated the 9/11 attack. They’re all about demonizing your enemy by accusing them of elaborate, nefarious plots that no one could actually get away with. Those conspiracy theories are offensive because they make mockery of tragedies where real people died. The Planned Parenthood conspiracy theory, which makes mockery of actual women’s lives and health-care needs, should also be regarded with contempt.
The only difference is that 9/11 and Sandy Hook truthers don’t have every major politician of a political party endorsing their bizarre claims. But Planned Parenthood truthers, whose theory is just as silly and falls apart just as easily upon examination, are being treated like serious political players instead of the wild-eyed cranks that they clearly are. The danger here isn’t just to women’s health-care access, though that is very serious indeed. It’s also to the basic integrity of our political system. We should all be worried that important policy decisions are being made on the basis of individuals spinning out hoaxes that have no basis in truth whatsoever.