Planned Parenthood of Indiana Struggles to Distance Itself from the National Scandal
One Tuesday this past summer, Betty Cockrum, president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky (PPINK), opened an email that would shape the rest of her year. A video circulating online about Planned Parenthood was igniting a firestorm, it said. She skimmed the message, saw the video, and clicked “play.”
As she watched, Cockrum initially thought the footage looked like the familiar “gotcha” videos she had seen from other anti-abortion activists. Released by a group called the Center for Medical Progress, this clip had the same secret, undercover look. The images showed a Planned Parenthood physician talking to people who (off-camera) were posing as vendors. But this one was markedly different in terms of content. Comprised of scenes of the doctor talking about fetal tissue donation, the video followed up with screens claiming her comments pointed to illegal activities. The topic was unfamiliar to Cockrum—she didn’t know much about fetal tissue donation procedures—but she was instantly alarmed.
The video finished, and Cockrum launched a fact-finding mission. She knew that none of her facilities participated in tissue donation. Still, she sent out an email to see if anyone had been in contact with the people posing as vendors in the video. With more than 170 employees, many of whom interact with dozens of vendors every day, there was no way to know who would be implicated.
As Cockrum was scrambling to get information, the video gained even more traction online. It was shared thousands of times on social media, and several politicians used the event to take a stand on a divisive issue. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal called for the health department to investigate Planned Parenthood in his state. Texas governor Rick Perry said the video was a “disturbing reminder of the organization’s penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.”
Meanwhile, in Indiana, Cockrum thought she was in the clear. Though angry conversations about Planned Parenthood raged on message boards, talk radio, and television broadcasts, the facilities she managed appeared not to be involved in the latest scandal. Then came the press release from Governor Mike Pence. Announcing a formal investigation of Planned Parenthood facilities in Indiana by the Department of Health in cooperation with the Indiana Attorney General, Pence made no secret of his disdain for the organization.
After two long weeks, PPINK was officially cleared of any wrongdoing, but the national controversy continued. Though there were only two confirmed states (California and Colorado) where Planned Parenthood affiliates participated in fetal tissue donation, Republicans in both houses of Congress introduced bills to strip the organization of $500 million in federal funding. And the Center for Medical Progress videos kept coming. Protests cropped up around the nation. Arsonists fire-bombed a Planned Parenthood facility in Washington state.
As Cockrum watched the events unfold, she realized the local fight was long from over. Even if her facilities had been abiding by the law, she was still inextricably tied to the national group and all of the strong emotions the name elicits. “It’s not about us,” she says. “But in the big scheme of things, it’s totally about us.”
New York birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger founded what would become Planned Parenthood in 1916, and the organization has been a lightning rod ever since. Sanger and her cofounders were almost immediately jailed for distributing “obscene material” (condoms and diaphragms) in violation of the federal Comstock Act. As the organization grew, services expanded to include PAP tests, breast and testicular cancer screenings, and sexually transmitted disease treatment, among others.
Today, PPINK is one of 62 affiliates located across the country. In order to use the Planned Parenthood name, each affiliate must be accredited, which includes an in-depth, on-site review of the facilities every four years. PPINK had its last accreditation process in March. An 18-person team came to Indianapolis to talk to staff, look at patient records, check employee files, and review medical protocols. In terms of how the affiliates operate, it works like a franchise. The local group uses the national name, but Cockrum controls all of the operations and reports to the Planned Parenthood of IN and KY board of directors. PPINK operates 25 health centers, all but two of which are in Indiana. Only four of those centers perform abortions (Indianapolis, Bloomington, Lafayette, and Merrillville). In her 13 years as CEO, Cockrum says she has never heard any discussion of fetal tissue donation. She suspects that’s because fetuses can’t be surgically aborted after 13 weeks, 6 days in Indiana—too early for viable organs for research use.
For those who would like to see the group defunded, the issue is not only a legal one.
When politicians talk about “defunding Planned Parenthood,” they’re referring to a proposed change to Title X funding that would disqualify any entity that performs abortions. That scenario was outlined in the recent bills to defund Planned Parenthood that were blocked by Senate Democrats—most of them, anyway. Indiana’s Democratic senator Joe Donnelly voted for the initial bill, defending his decision even in the wake of the local group’s exoneration. “The vote was about Planned Parenthood clinics around the country,” he said in a statement to IM. “I could not support federal funding for this organization until the questions of whether clinics in other states are complying with federal and state laws are answered.”PPINK’s annual operating budget of $16 million comes from Medicaid reimbursements, donations, insurance payments, and Title X funding. By law, Title X money (taxpayer dollars set aside for family planning) can’t be used to support abortion services. So all Planned Parenthood affiliates separate the funding to fulfill the law. They use Title X support to finance their other services, such as STD testing and education, which make up 93 percent of those offered. PPINK aided 67,000 patients last year.
On July 14, the Center for Medical Progress (a nonprofit organization comprised of “citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances”) released its first video, igniting the controversy. The film begins with a comment from a 20/20 episode dated March 8, 2000: “Now a story we guarantee most of you have never heard before. Big money is being made from the sale of fetal body parts.” It then cuts to a scene of protesters and continues: “Even the most ardent pro-choice advocates like [former] Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt are disturbed by what we found.” Feldt is shown saying, “It seems inappropriate, totally inappropriate. Where there is wrongdoing, it should be prosecuted and should be brought to justice.” The screen fades to black and these words appear on the screen: “The footage you are about to see was taken from an undercover meeting with a top-level Planned Parenthood abortion doctor executive. Some viewers may find this content disturbing.”
The next scene shows Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood, at a restaurant eating salad and drinking wine. She talks casually about which fetal body parts are in demand, the potential cost for each specimen, and strategies for extracting a fetus to procure the parts that researchers are seeking. The video charges that the conversations reveal several laws being broken by Planned Parenthood: the buying and selling of human body parts, trafficking body parts from an aborted baby, and partial-birth abortions.
Two days after the video was posted, Planned Parenthood responded with its own. In it, current Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards apologized for the doctor’s insensitive tone and refuted the claims made. “An organization that opposes safe and legal abortion used secretly recorded, heavily edited videos to make outrageous claims about programs that help women donate fetal tissue for medical research,” she said. “I want to be really clear. The allegation that Planned Parenthood profits in any way from tissue donation is not true.”
The Center for Medical Progress videos continued to emerge throughout the summer. Cockrum shares Richards’s disgust at how the activist group went about making them. To her, their method showed a lack of integrity. But she has to admit that they’re tough to watch. Even after reading some of the transcripts, which haven’t been strategically edited, she thinks certain parts are disturbing. People who have supported PPINK for years now approach with questions about the videos, and she doesn’t have all of the answers. Her response is that the doctor is human—she made the mistake of trusting the other person. And Cockrum still believes in the Planned Parenthood mission.
In the five months since the first video was released, six states and three House committees have launched investigations into Planned Parenthood. So far, none have uncovered any violations—as it turns out, federal law permits the sale of fetal tissue for research. But for those who would like to see the group defunded, the issue is not only a legal argument; it’s a moral one. When states began to be cleared after the investigations, Republicans pivoted in their criticism of the organization. Mike Fichter, CEO of the anti-abortion group Indiana Right to Life, sees this as a strategic time to further his mission: pull taxpayer dollars from any group providing abortions. “Last year, Indiana Planned Parenthood facilities ended the heartbeats of 4,930 unborn children,” he says. “A business that profits off a woman in her time of need, by killing her unborn child, does not deserve a cent.”
Though the Senate blocked both bills to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood, experts say the closeness of the first vote (53–46) makes another push likely. Locally, Governor Pence recently awarded a $3.5 million contract to Real Alternatives, a faith-based chain of women’s health clinics that discourage abortion and do not provide contraceptive services or drugs. What effect that will have on PPINK remains to be seen.
If Planned Parenthood is defunded or subverted, Cockrum believes the people who will suffer most are not PPINK employees, but those who depend on their services such as cancer screening and STD treatment. Indiana currently earns an F grade from the Washington, D.C.–based Population Institute in terms of access to sex education and reproductive care. “If you unplug funding across the country, and certainly here in Indiana, it would have a devastating impact,” she says. “And it would take years of devastation to have the data to prove that.”
At 62 years old, Cockrum has seen the abortion debate run in cycles here. Every few years, she finds herself taking up a shield for her cause. But she also says the recent challenge seems more daunting than usual. The controversy isn’t going away, especially with the upcoming election year.
Her opponents contend there are plenty of other places in the state that offer preventative care without abortion services. By Fichter’s calculations, there are 19 health centers in Indiana that provide cancer and STD screenings, serving 364,112 patients per year—some of whom are low-income. And then he drops this bombshell: Recently, the Center for Medical Progress reached out to Indiana Right to Life with news. In the course of their three-year investigation, they did, indeed, visit the Hoosier state.
At press time, no evidence of an Indiana-based video had come to light. But as the pressure on Cockrum mounts, the story may be far from over.