For nearly two years, Lila Rose has been a thorn in Planned Parenthood's side. The UCLA student has taken a hidden video camera to various clinics across the country and posed as a minor who is several weeks pregnant by a much older boyfriend. Her aim is to see if clinicians follow state laws regarding the reporting of statutory rape and getting parental consent for abortions. In nine cases, her videos suggest they weren't.
In fact, two weeks ago Alabama put a Birmingham Planned Parenthood clinic on probation after an inspection triggered by one of Rose's videos. State health inspectors found that the clinic failed to get the signature of minors on its forms verifying parental consent for abortions. Vanessa Cullins, Planned Parenthood's vice president for medical affairs, told me the national office is "concerned" and that this affiliate will soon be merged with a Georgia affiliate that "has more resources."
In one of the videos, taped in July 2008 at a clinic in Memphis, Rose poses as a pregnant 14-year-old who wants to have an abortion immediately. She's told that as a minor she has to bring a parent along but then convinces the receptionist to allow her to talk to a counselor. During the ninth minute in this unedited video, Rose says that she's 14 and her boyfriend (who's not with her) is 31 and then asks if he's going to get in trouble. "No," the counselor says. "You promise?" Rose asks. The worker then says the boyfriend could if she tells her manager but adds, "I'm not going to tell anybody. Please don't say that I told you this. ... Just say that you have a boyfriend 17 years old." Tennessee state law defines statutory rape as someone at least four years older than the victim having sex with someone older than 13 and younger than 18. The state requires a reporting of such cases to authorities.
The counselor did tell Rose that she'd need to see a judge if she wanted to have an abortion without her parent's consent. The counselor said that she should tell the judge that her boyfriend was also a minor to protect him from a statutory rape charge.
A similar scenario had occurred when Rose took her hidden video camera to an Indianapolis clinic a month earlier.
A Planned Parenthood spokesperson who didn't want to speak for attribution says that the counselor on the Memphis tape was no longer an employee by the time the tape was released. Nonetheless, the clinic immediately retrained all its staff, the spokesperson says. According to a December 2008 statement from Planned Parenthood of Indiana, the Indianapolis clinic dismissed two employees who were featured in Rose's video, and the president of the state organization said that "we've already made changes to tighten procedures and reinforce our reporting policies with all health center staff across the state."
Though Rose refers to herself as a student journalist, she clearly has an agenda. In an interview Tuesday, Rose, 20, told me she's "unabashedly a pro-life advocate" and that abortion is a "human rights abuse." She says that she'd like to see all taxpayer dollars taken away from Planned Parenthood and that her videos show that the organization "doesn't take the law seriously and doesn't take adult-child sexual relationships seriously." She declined to reveal to me the source of funding for her group, Live Action, which makes and posts the videos on its website, except to say that it's not funded by "active" antiabortion groups like National Right to Life and that in 2009 it spent $124,000, which was provided by individuals and a few foundations sympathetic to the cause.
Earlier this week, Live Action released another video along the same lines as the others, generating another round of media coverage. The video, made at a Milwaukee clinic, was nearly two years ago. Coincidence or not, it was released during the week when President Obama is meeting with congressional leaders to discuss a health reform bill. In the White House's list of proposed changes to the Senate-passed health reform bill, the funding of community health centers like Planned Parenthood rises from the $7 billion to $11 billion.
[Read Abortion Coverage Severely Restricted in House Health Reform Bill.]
Taxpayer dollars aren't legally allowed to be used to fund abortions. When I point this out to Rose, she says that Planned Parenthood "is concerned with upping their abortion numbers" and that "they've increased their share in the abortion market steadily." She adds, "At the end of the day, even if federal funds can't be earmarked for abortions, those used to support Planned Parenthood support abortions."
Cullins calls Rose's claims "totally absurd and totally unfounded," stressing that 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does has nothing to do with abortions. "Our foremost focus is on prevention of unplanned pregnancies through the use of safe and accepted contraceptive methods," she says. While she admits that Planned Parenthood is providing a larger share of abortion services in this country than in the past, she says that's because "we've had a paucity of new providers who have come into the system to start their own clinics."
I want to know what, if any, action Planned Parenthood has taken on a national level in response to these videos. Cullins first tells me that much of the footage is highly edited—like this latest video from Milwaukee—and can't be taken at face value. She says she hasn't seen raw footage of the videos. Still, Cullins adds, that "we take seriously any allegations that come our way and take corrective action in the form of training and retraining in order to ensure that care is in accordance with the law." The organization already had a system in place, before the first video came out, for doing routine spot checks of its facilities with investigators posing as teens. "Of all the calls we've done," Cullins says, "we've had a couple of instances we've seen where employees didn't respond the way they should with regards to teens and reporting abuse."
As a result of these spot checks, Cullins adds, Planned Parenthood decided to institute a program of retraining. There's now a policy in place, she says, to transfer patients to a trained "skills interviewer" whenever a patient hints at abuse—be it statutory rape, domestic violence, or pregnancy coercion. In the case of statutory rape, "first and foremost, clinicians must explain that there is reporting that must be done to proper authorities," says Cullins. "They must send the primary message that this is an unhealthy relationship, and parents need to be brought into the teen's confidence, though we can't legally inform parents" that a teen is pregnant and seeking an abortion because of medical privacy laws. While some states don't have laws requiring parents to be notified before a minor obtains an abortion, most have some law requiring at least one parent to be notified. (Parental consent can sometimes be bypassed by obtaining court approval.)
Cullins conceded that the videos have put a spotlight on some weaknesses in the system and that Planned Parenthood has made some changes as a result. The national office has sent out new training materials to affiliates, she says, and has conducted teleconferences with affiliate leaders and workshops at professional meetings. She adds: "The one thing I really want to reinforce is that we've already had system in place to assure the quality of care so that when we pick up deviations, we can readily address them."