1Religion and Politics

Lankford Misses Mark In Planned Parenthood Speech

Lab Panorama on Flickr The Commons

Our junior Oklahoma U.S. Senator James Lankford spoke on the Senate floor last Thursday about a sting video showing a Planned Parenthood executive supposedly talking rather bluntly about using aborted fetuses for medical research.

Obviously, Lankford, a Southern Baptist who is a social conservative in red-state Oklahoma, opposes abortion and gave a rather dramatic speech on the issue, mentioning proudly in a news release, “At the time of the speech, Lankford was the only Senator to speak on the floor about the Planned Parenthood video.”

But the video itself has come under fire for distortion with cherry-picked editing and slicing, though the organization has now released the entire video. No matter what you might think about the use of fetal tissue for research, it’s simply not right for a politically oriented organization to send undercover operatives to produce a video or story that obviously aims to support their agenda. This is unethical at worst, and at the very least, it’s not valuable for presenting an unbiased view of any political issue.

Let me present a quick overview of what happened, and then parse through a couple of Lankford’s statements in his speech that ignore how the video was produced and the agenda behind it.

In 2014, the group Center for Medical Progress sent people who have been called “actors” to have lunch with a Planned Parenthood executive in charge of medical research. This month they released a video showing the executive talking about selling fetal tissue for important stem cell research. Apparently, the Center for Medical Progress is linked to the anti-abortion group Live Action, according to media reports, and may have misled the public and the Internal Revenue Service about their agenda.

In addition, the supposedly smoking-gun video is really just a rehash of what’s been going on for years in medical research. The video has been in the news for a while, and it follows a familiar right-wing and corporate media pattern. The right-wing releases a sting video or makes an outrageous claim with scant evidence or condemns someone or some political position with a distorted take on some information. The media reports it in breathless, sensational fashion, ignoring the political context at first. Right-wing outrage ensues. The claim is then discredited or placed into appropriate context, but no one remembers the credibility problem and most right-wingers intentionally just accept the deception for what they might perceive as larger reasons.

Here’s a short rundown of links on the “hitjob,” which has raised the usual questions about veracity and intent. The mainstream media has begun to pick up on the credibility issue.

The two main points here are that (1) Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization, is definitely NOT “selling” fetal body parts, which seems to be the initial video’s point, but is merely recovering minor costs for preserving and transporting tissue to medical research facilities, and (2) as a NBC report on the issue points out, “Cells from embryos and very early fetuses have properties that fully developed cells do not. What most researchers are after if they use fetal tissue are the stem cells.”

Again, stem cell research has raised questions of medical ethics, which should be constantly debated in our culture, but that doesn’t make it a Planned Parenthood issue. It’s a larger issue. Abortion is legal in this country. Stem cells from fetal tissue and embryos can be used to develop medical treatments that save and extend lives. The issues scrutinized through the lens of medical ethics are ever-changing because of scientific advancements. The initial anti-abortion sting video, as far as I can tell, doesn’t engage these obvious points in any meaningful, unbiased way. It only sensationalizes stem cell research to stir up emotional reaction.

But the video was enough for Lankford to go on the Senate floor and deliver a speech condemning Planned Parenthood, which is often a target of religious fundamentalists and their political supporters. It’s no surprise that Lankford did this, but it lacks the type of basic leadership for which he gets lauded on The Oklahoman editorial page. Here’s what the newspaper recently had to say about Lankford:

Oklahomans can rest assured that their freshman U.S. senator is staying on top of it and, where possible, working to make a positive difference.

One could argue that Lankford’s position on abortion is shared by many of his constituents, but it’s hardly a “positive difference” to waste time on the Senate floor on information produced under suspect circumstances by a group with a political agenda. That’s not “staying on top of it . . .”. That’s simply crass politics.

Here’s a transcript of the speech posted on Lankford’s Senate site. I will look at two paragraphs in the speech. The first one argues the “bodies” of “aborted children” are “sometimes for sale.” Here it is:

We learned that this week an organization called Planned Parenthood is using children that are aborted and sending the bodies of those aborted children to research facilities, sometimes for sale, different body parts, to be used in research. These are not mice, these are not lab rats, these are children. Children that have gone through the process of a horrific abortion.

Everyone knows about Planned Parenthood. To say, “ . . . an organization called Planned Parenthood,” is to imply it’s new or not credible in a historical sense, and, as he goes on, doing something very sinister. Planned Parenthood dates back to 1916. He says “the bodies” and “different body parts” without mentioning once that it’s really about tissue for stem cell research. He argues these “bodies” are “sometimes for sale,” but that’s a distortion. Medical research costs money in terms of preservation of specimens and transportation. Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization, is merely recovering costs. His entire language in the paragraph is to elicit an emotional reaction, which riles up his angry base of voters but isn’t a truthful and thoughtful expression on the issue.

Here’s another paragraph I found especially misleading:

Why this Congress would spend time today debating horse slaughter and debating orca whales, but yet we've become so numb to children that the other debate doesn't seem to come up. Maybe we need to start again as a nation, asking a basic question. If that's a child, and in our Declaration [of Independence] we said every person that we believe is endowed by our Creator to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, maybe we need to ask as a nation again, do we really believe that?

There are two major fallacies here. One is changing the argument from the issue of stem cell research and even the video itself to the ethics of animal treatment. Does anyone reading this think this country and its politicians haven’t debated the abortion issue, which is what this is about? A person can be against abortion and also support animal rights and the environment. The second one is using a tired overarching trope of a founding national document that has absolutely nothing to do with the issue under discussion. It’s crass political rhetoric.

In the end, the sting video and Lankford’s speech don’t add up to much. They’re both simply tricks trying to sway people to be against reproductive rights for women. There’s more at stake here than just a woman’s right to choose. It’s about the continued Republican agenda to control women’s bodies.