WASHINGTON (AP) — Accusations and strong emotions mark the start of long-awaited congressional hearings on Planned Parenthood, with a prominent abortion foe contending the group is breaking laws that bar for-profit sales of fetal tissue, while an advocate says there's no proof.
Clandestinely recorded videos show that Planned Parenthood "violates various federal laws," said James Bopp Jr., general counsel for National Right to Life, in testimony prepared for the House Judiciary Committee's hearing Wednesday.
He said that only banning research using fetal tissue from abortions or abortion itself "will prevent the inevitable abuse."
Yet to Priscilla Smith, who directs Yale Law School's Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice, "there is simply no evidence in these misleadingly edited videos of a violation" of statutes, according to her written remarks.
The hearing was the first on Capitol Hill since the Center for Medical Progress, a small group of anti-abortion activists, began releasing videos in July that showed Planned Parenthood officials casually describing how they sometimes obtain tissue from aborted fetuses for medical researchers.
Planned Parenthood has said the videos were dishonestly edited, and the group has denied any wrongdoing.
Also set to testify were two women who say they survived failed abortions as newborns. Representatives from Planned Parenthood and the Center for Medical Progress were not scheduled to appear.
The GOP is eager to use questions about fetal tissue research to personalize the broader political dispute over abortion, which could be a factor during the 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns.
"If abortion is about women's rights, then what were mine?" said Gianna Jessen, who says she was born alive after a failed 1977 abortion in Los Angeles.
Many conservative lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates want Congress to end federal payments to Planned Parenthood as the price for approving spending bills keeping government agencies open past Oct. 1.
Top Republicans want to avoid a standoff that precipitates a federal shutdown, which voters might blame on the GOP. Party leaders hope votes over Planned Parenthood can be isolated to separate bills not tied to financing the government.
Before the hearing, Planned Parenthood distributed a report saying that nine other times since 2000, it has been targeted in a "fanatical crusade" by anti-abortion extremists who have released recordings after trying to entrap the organization into wrongful behavior, only to see the allegations discredited.
In his prepared remarks, Bopp said comments in the recent videos show that Planned Parenthood officials were not limiting their fees for fetal tissue to covering their own expenses, as the law allows. They are "instead trying to make money off of human fetal tissue," he said.
In a video, Dr. Mary Gatter, a regional Planned Parenthood medical director in California, is talking with abortion opponents who posed as private tissue buyers. "In negotiations, the person who throws out the figure first is at a loss, right?" Gatter says.
In her testimony, Smith said such conversations were actually unsuccessful attempts by the Center for Medical Progress to "entrap" Planned Parenthood officials into illegally selling tissue for profit.
Bopp urged lawmakers to investigate whether Planned Parenthood was violating the federal ban against a procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. He also cited other comments that he says show that the group changes abortion procedures to increase their chances of recovering intact tissue.
That is prohibited by federal law when tissue is being obtained for federally financed research on transplantation. The National Institutes of Health says it has not financed a trial on such research for almost a decade, and Planned Parenthood has said it doesn't alter abortion procedures.
Planned Parenthood provides contraception, tests for sexually transmitted diseases and abortions in clinics across the country. It receives more than $500 million each year from federal and state governments, more than one-third of its overall $1.3 billion annual budget.
Three other congressional committees are also investigating Planned Parenthood but have yet to hold hearings.
Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a memo Wednesday saying that so far its investigation has found no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. Republicans did not immediately respond to a request for comment.