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Secret Tapes Reignite US Abortion Funding Debate

Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky. (Center), with Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas (Left), and John Thune, R-S.D., speaks about Planned Parenthood, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 29, 2015.
Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky. (Center), with Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas (Left), and John Thune, R-S.D., speaks about Planned Parenthood, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 29, 2015.

Secretly-taped videos have re-energized America’s emotion-laden debate over abortion, making it a burning issue in the 2016 presidential contest and roiling Congress to the point where a federal government shutdown later this year could become more likely.

In recent weeks, an anti-abortion group has released covert videos in which staffers of Planned Parenthood, America’s leading provider of abortions and reproductive health services, nonchalantly discuss the sale of fetal tissue for clinical research.

“It sickens me to see what’s been going on with Planned Parenthood,” said Republican Senator Rand Paul, who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination next year.

"The next president should defund Planned Parenthood," said another Republican presidential aspirant, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. "Abortion should not be funded by government, any government in my mind."

Public funds

Planned Parenthood and its affiliates receive more than $500 million annually in public funds, but are barred by law from using taxpayer dollars for abortions, relying on other revenue streams for that purpose.

Even so, Republicans say the group is unworthy of federal support.

“The revelations we have seen from Planned Parenthood are deeply disturbing,” said Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “They raise fundamental questions about what kind of society we want to be.”

Earlier this week, Senate Democrats blocked debate on a bill to defund Planned Parenthood and redirect those funds to health clinics that do not perform abortions.

“I gave birth to two premature kids, and I just don’t like lectures by men,” said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. “Using pregnancy as a political football doesn’t sit well with the people I represent.”

“Ninety-seven percent of the work Planned Parenthood does has nothing to do with abortion, it’s primary health care,” Boxer added. “They [Republicans] are attacking the ability of women to obtain affordable birth control, which would only result in more unintended pregnancies and more abortions.”

Group defends ethics

For its part, Planned Parenthood has questioned the legality of the secretly-taped videos. While acknowledging their cringe-inducing content, the group says it has broken no laws or ethical boundaries.

“Allegations that Planned Parenthood profits in any way from tissue donation is not true,” said Planned Parenthood Director Cecile Richards, adding that the organization’s mission is to provide compassionate health care. “In the video, one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion. This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize.”

Fetal tissue

Republicans like Senator Joni Ernst are not satisfied.

“This is human life,” Ernst said. “And Planned Parenthood, the nation’s single largest provider of abortion services, is harvesting baby body parts.”

Democrats note that research involving fetal tissue has spurred life-saving treatments and cures.

“It has led to public health breakthroughs like the polio vaccine. It is helping develop treatments for Parkinson’s, for Alzheimer’s, and more,” said Boxer.

Congress will return from its annual August recess in September facing pressing fiscal tasks. Unless lawmakers allocate money for a multitude of federal agencies and programs, the U.S. government would shut down October 1.

Some Republicans are pressing to exclude funding for Planned Parenthood, a move that would be strongly opposed by congressional Democrats and likely trigger a veto by President Barack Obama.