When members of the U.S. Congress form a "fact-finding" select committee, they often spend their time in other ways. Grandstanding, point scoring, and political theater can take precedence over any actual investigation. And that's especially true when the focus is a hot button issue like abortion rights.
This is the situation in which U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) says she’ll likely find herself in coming months, as part of a new Select Investigative Panel organized by House Republicans. Announcing it in late October, then House Speaker John Boehner said the committee's investigation would focus on "the grisly practices of big abortion providers.” In response, minority leader Nancy Pelosi announced she was putting DelBene and five fellow House Democrats on the committee to "be in the room to fight for the truth."
“I’m on the judiciary committee, and we’ve already had to sit through hearings with titles like ‘Planned Parenthood Exposed’” says DelBene, who has a strong pro-choice record. “There’s already a bias and an opinion before we even have a hearing. That’s how this started. As I’ve said before, there’s no reason we should be having this select committee.”
DelBene hasn’t received any specifics about the committee’s agenda, but in a preview of how both parties will attempt to leverage the committee for their own purposes, House Democrats, in official communications, already call it the Select Committee to Attack Women's Health. This has led to such unfortunately ambiguous press release titles as “DelBene to Serve on GOP's Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health."
It's safe to assume that the committee will focus on Planned Parenthood, spurred by “sting” style videos released this past summer. The videos depicted a senior official with the organization casually discussing the monetary factors around donating fetal tissues for medical research. In response the video, Planned Parenthood claimed she was only discussing reimbursement for the transfer costs of these tissues, as is allowed by law. Some conservatives, however, took a much darker interpretation.
Presidential candidates such as Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina claim that the videos prove Planned Parenthood is “selling body parts for profit” and “profiting on the death of the unborn while telling women it’s about empowerment.” The videos have become a national lightning rod for the anti-abortion movement, and have been connected to attacks and arson targeting Planned Parenthood clinics.
“Recent videos exposing the abortion-for-baby-parts business have shocked the nation, and demanded action,” Boehner said when announcing the select committee's formation. “At my request, three House committees have been investigating the abortion business, but we still don’t have the full truth. Chairman (Marsha) Blackburn and our members will have the resources and the subpoena power to get to the bottom of these horrific practices, and build on our work to protect the sanctity of all human life.”
The video was released by a small anti-abortion group named the Center for Medical Progress, based in Texas. The group’s initial video was clearly edited, leading to claims by Planned Parenthood that it was doctored to alter the actual conversation it depicted.
The full video, released later, supported Planned Parenthood's assertions. As the non-partisan Factcheck.org has pointed out, the full footage shows the Planned Parenthood official in question making such statements as, “Affiliates are not looking to make money by doing this… Our goal, like I said, is to give patients the option without impacting our bottom line. The messaging is this should not be seen as a new revenue stream, because that’s not what it is.”
DelBene says that her role on the select committee will be to “push for (it) to focus on facts, and not an ideological war against women’s access to health care.” But once the ball is rolling so aggressively in one direction, is it possible to stop its inertia with contrary evidence? Even if that evidence is coming from the controversy’s original source? She doubts it.
“We wouldn’t be having a select committee if we were looking at evidence right now,” DelBene says. “When we had our hearings in the Judiciary Committee on this issue, not a single representative from Planned Parenthood was invited as a witness. So it was definitely not be focused on getting information.”
There was discussion among House Democrats of skipping the committee altogether. In DelBene’s estimation, the entire thing is likely a taxpayer-funded act of theater. For their part, Republicans push back on this description. The select committee’s chair, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), claims that, “Our charge is to be an information-gathering, fact-finding committee."
"To hear the casual and callous nature that some of the individuals in that footage talked about — the babies, these little unborn babies, these aborted babies and baby body parts — is disturbing and unsettling," Blackburn told Memphis’ Commercial Appeal newspaper. "I don't know anyone who has watched these videos who was not unsettled and disturbed by those videos."
For an alleged fact-finding mission, the opinions of investigators are very clear-cut. Of the eight Republicans leading the committee, all have voting records scored at 100 percent by the National Right to Life Committee. Delbene and her fellow five Democrats on the committee have all been endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice America.