What Did the Planned Parenthood Sting Really Accomplish?

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Screenshot of Live Action video

Over five days in mid-January, men posing as sex traffickers entered 12 Planned Parenthood clinics in six states. They claimed to be pimps seeking medical care, birth control and abortions for prostitutes as young as 14, some in the U.S. illegally. The meetings with Planned Parenthood staff members were videotaped, and on Tuesday one video was released by the anti-abortion group Live Action, which had orchestrated the entire ruse.

That video depicts Amy Woodruff, a manager of a Planned Parenthood location in Perth Amboy, N.J., advising the sex trafficker how to obtain medical care for underage girls. She also appears to joke with the pimp about how he could keep his prostitutes working immediately following an abortion by selling their services “from the waist up.”

When asked if the girls can get abortions, she replies that if they are under 15, they should go to an abortion clinic whose “protocols are not as strict as ours,” and supplies the man, who remains off-camera, with the name and address of the clinic. (More on Time.com: Philly Abortion Horrors: What Matters Is How and Not When an Abortion Is Done, Says Expert)

Woodruff’s New Jersey location was among the clinics that reported the incident to Planned Parenthood’s central office, which compelled them to contact the FBI about the possibility of an underage prostitution ring. But when the video was made public on Tuesday, Woodruff was fired by Planned Parenthood, according to NJ.com.

“The behavior we saw in the videotape was egregious and repugnant,” said Planned Parenthood spokesman Stuart Schear, adding that it was “completely inexplicable and inconsistent with what Planned Parenthood does.”

Planned Parenthood offers family planning and health services, particularly to low-income women, including testing for sexually transmitted disease (STD), sexual abuse and rape treatment and counseling, cancer screening, vaccination, access to birth control and abortion. It has been a constant target of the anti-abortion movement.

The video released Tuesday by Live Action appears to be edited, and it is not possible to know the full context of Woodruff’s comments. One could argue that much of her behavior was in keeping with Planned Parenthood protocol: she suggested, for instance, that the girls should receive full gynecological exams and follow-up care, rather than just STD testing, and reiterated that any woman who comes through Planned Parenthood’s doors deserves access to care.

Of course, if in fact she believed the girls were underage sex workers, her response was clearly lax. But it is impossible to know whether Woodruff’s seeming encouragement of the purported sex trafficker was an attempt to coax the victims of abuse into her care, or whether it “proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Planned Parenthood intentionally breaks state and federal laws and covers up the abuse of the young girls it claims to serve,” as Live Action president Lila Rose has stated.

It would help to see the rest of the footage Live Action shot. Today, the group released a second video made at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Virginia, where the health care provider is depicted as informative and accommodating, but does not behave inappropriately or unlawfully.

When asked how a 15-year-old might obtain an abortion without a guardian’s consent, the clinic worker discussed an option called a judicial bypass, a fully legal recourse that allows woman under 18 to go to court for a judicial hearing when her parents refuse to consent to an abortion. You can see the full video below:

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Given that Live Action’s collaborators visited 12 clinics in six states, the other 10 videos would give the public a fuller picture of Planned Parenthood staff members’ responses.

“If these visits are part of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign, they must be condemned,” Schear said Jan. 24 in a statement, before Live Action had taken responsibility for the sex-trafficking ploy. “Falsely claiming sex trafficking to health professionals to advance a political agenda is an astoundingly cynical form of political activity.”

Even before the anti-abortion group released the videos, however, Planned Parenthood’s management suspected that the sex workers were pro-life activists in disguise. In 2009, a similar series of undercover videos were made at Planned Parenthood locations in or near Indiana. Those videos were also conceived by Rose and another anti-abortion activist, James O’Keefe, who is best known for making fraudulent videos during a sting operation at several offices of the antipoverty organization Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The edited video depicted ACORN employees behaving unethically, but a review of the full footage by the Congressional Research Service cleared the group of wrongdoing.

Aside from the fact that such video “exposés” prevent workers like those at Planned Parenthood from delivering care — presumably, they are not attending to real clients in need during the activists’ sting operations — they also result in exorbitant costs to the government to fund unnecessary investigations.

It also seems that the $125,000 grant that Lila Rose reportedly received from an anonymous donor to carry out the investigation of Planned Parenthood might have better served the effort to eradicate sex trafficking if it had been given to the Polaris Project or any other organization that actually fights sex trafficking.

If Rose’s goal is to end abortion or protect the abuse of young girls, it’s unlikely that harassing individual medical workers is the most fruitful strategy. Although she claims that her ultimate goal is to interfere with government funding of health-care clinics that provide abortions, her methods suggest something a little more personal. The Associated Press quoted Rose as saying:

“We will work to de-fund them in every state wherever it is possible, to de-license them and to expose them,” she told the conservative Value Voters Summit in October.

“The other part of it, too, is to create controversy within the organization, keep them on their toes,” she said. “We need to help them feel that fear.”