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The Campaign Against Planned Parenthood Is Causing a Headache for Republicans

Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

For two weeks now, an anti-abortion advocacy group has been disclosing footage of Planned Parenthood officials breezily discussing the medical and bureaucratic processes by which they provide aborted fetal tissue to biomedical researchers.

The group, the Center for Medical Progress, has made an effort to publicize selectively edited versions of the videos, rather than the unedited footage, which they’ve also released, in order to create the impression that Planned Parenthood is illegally securing and selling fetal organs for profit. In full context it appears Planned Parenthood is doing no such thing.

But the availability of the unedited footage hasn’t put the controversy to rest, in large part because the secretly taped officials seem so insouciant about wrenching issues.

Conservatives have joined the fight with relish, under the not-insane assumption that Planned Parenthood’s allies would lose the ensuing public opinion battle, creating an opportunity for the right to advance pro-life causes, or (more feasibly) to punish Democrats. What they’ve done instead, using ghoulish propaganda, is convince myriad religious conservatives that Planned Parenthood is making a business of harvesting baby flesh, and that something must be done to stop them. Against the backdrop of the presidential primary, this is turning a public relations nightmare for Democrats into an intractably escalating political crisis for Republicans.

The emotional power of the Planned Parenthood videos lies in the images they evoke, but their political power stems from broad, intense conservative opposition to abortion generally—not to fetal tissue research per se. If these conservatives were foremost concerned with the ethics of fetal tissue donation, they could propose banning it outright, or at least tissue obtained from legal abortions. Instead, they are proposing to eliminate Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. This non sequitur gives away the plot, and all of the cross-ideological sympathy they might have had at the outset.

If the videos genuinely exposed a criminal organ harvesting operation, eliminating its federal funding would be an on-point response. In reality, the effort to defund Planned Parenthood is completely unresponsive to the full content of the videos. In an admirably clear-eyed analysis of the Planned Parenthood controversy, Robert Tracinski of The Federalist (which has otherwise been a reliable outpost of rote anti-Planned Parenthood disinformation) admits, “The case wasn’t about what it seemed to be about based on the selected excerpts we had been offered.” The most plausible rationale for this is that conservatives, who have a permanent axe to grind with Planned Parenthood, are using deception to threaten its viability, and make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions as a consequence.

By attempting to capitalize on the videos in an unscrupulous way, conservatives have unleashed political forces Republicans can’t control. Anti-abortion zealots are now demanding that Republicans in Congress refuse to appropriate money for government operations unless Planned Parenthood’s funding is abolished—a new test of Republican pro-life bona fides. To force Congress’ hand, they’re admonishing Republican presidential candidates that the anti-abortion vote will only follow those who support the shutdown effort. The purpose of Erick Erickson’s above tweet, alerting the candidates to his question days in advance, is to eclipse the instinctual aversion many of them will have to promoting a government shutdown, and get as many of them on the same page as possible.

The House and Senate Republican conferences are famously undisciplined majority-party tacticians. And though you might expect party leaders to put down an insurgency like this at all costs, so that a government shutdown doesn’t become a central theme of the presidential election, there are mounting reasons to doubt that they can avoid it. Republican victories in the 2014 midterm election, one year after they shut down the government in an unthinking showcase of resistance to Obamacare, convinced party activists that maximalist confrontation carries little political risk. And with little to lose, most Republican presidential candidates will advocate precisely that strategy.

Many Republican strategists have labored under the illusion that after mobilizing massive anti-Obama resistance for six years, the party could seamlessly affect a more moderate disposition ahead of the campaign to elect his successor. The Planned Parenthood videos are providing a late reminder that the strings Republicans thought they were pulling are connected to living actors with minds of their own.