Defunding Planned Parenthood has become a shibboleth for Republican presidential aspirants: As a legislator or governor, you can't stand as a credible candidate unless you've defunded the organization in your state or voted to do so.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Chairman Carly Fiorina can't compete on this score, never having ever held political office. So at this week's GOP debate she raised the ante, making the most extreme statement about Planned Parenthood of anyone in the field.
"As regards Planned Parenthood," she said, "anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."
This is a pure fabrication. Fiorina is referring to the surreptitious videotapes distributed by the inaptly named anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. The tapes have been conclusively discredited as heavily edited misrepresentations, but not even the "full" versions (though also somewhat edited, according to a Planned Parenthood analysis) show the scene Fiorina describes. Sarah Kliff at Vox, who has viewed every tape in full, provides a helpful guide to finding the scenes shot inside Planned Parenthood clinical laboratories.
It's possible that Fiorina is referring to one of another set of videotapes from Center for Medical Progress that include the shot of a moving fetus; the problem there is that this isn't Center for Medical Progress footage (it's credited to the Grantham Collection and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, two other anti-abortion groups), there's no claim on the tape that it came from a Planned Parenthood facility, and no verification that it's the product of an induced abortion. No one is saying, "We have to keep it alive so we can harvest its brain."
(Update: The Federalist, a conservative website, contends that Fiorina is right and it's the media that's lying about her statement. But the website's own analysis shows that it's Fiorina who is in the wrong. The Federalist acknowleges that neither of the two fetuses in the CMP video is the one referred to in CMP's voiceover--one is "another baby of roughly the same gestational age," it acknowledges--and that the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, the source of the footage, doesn't identify it as coming from Planned Parenthood, but merely from "an abortion clinic.")
Fiorina thus has created a testing moment for her rising campaign: Will she fess up to a gross misrepresentation and error? Planned Parenthood Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens, in a letter addressed to Fiorina via her campaign, states outright that "your statements last night, while vivid and attention-getting, were completely untrue," implicitly demanding an apology.
Planned Parenthood also calls out Fiorina for another misrepresentation. In an interview on Fox Business News following the first Republican debate last month, she called Planned Parenthood "an organization that has preyed on, preyed on, poor communities of color." Her evidence was that in New York City "there are more African American babies aborted every year than born alive."
Her statistical claim is based on truth; her implication tying it to Planned Parenthood is false. New York City reported 31,328 induced abortions among black women in 2012, compared with 24,758 live births. But to say this shows that Planned Parenthood has "preyed on" communities of color is just slander.
The high rate of abortion in the black community is a well-known phenomenon that long has perplexed reproductive health experts. Some attribute it to poverty or the difficulty of obtaining such contraceptive methods as IUDs, which are expensive. (The Affordable Care Act remedies this by making birth control available to all women without a co-pay, but Fiorina advocates repealing the act.) The idea that Planned Parenthood is steering black women to abortions is a figment of Fiorina's imagination.
Thus far, Fiorina has doubled down on her misrepresentation, telling George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America" the next day, "Rest assured I have seen the images that I talked about last night."
The news media haven't done enough to call out Fiorina's claims. By the nature of the format, CNN's debate moderator, Jake Tapper, was in no position to set the record straight, and Fiorina's rivals, jostling to take center stage as Planned Parenthood's leading nemesis, weren't about to do so. But Stephanopoulos countered her statement by citing unnamed "analysts who have watched all 12 plus hours" of the Center for Medical Progress tapes--doesn't "Good Morning America" have the staff to view the tapes themselves? In a typically pusillanimous ruling, fact-checking website PolitiFact rated Fiorina's statement "mostly false," though its own report makes clear that there isn't a speck of truth in it. David Brooks of the New York Times praises her "genius for creating signature moments," but doesn't give a moment's thought to how fact-challenged they are. Doesn't that matter?
Fiorina's history shows that one of her character flaws is an inability to admit when she's wrong and accept blame; in her telling, the responsibility for her abject failure as head of Hewlett-Packard belongs to everyone except herself. (For a dissection of her missteps at HP, written at the time, see this brilliant 2005 piece by Fortune's nonpareil Carol J. Loomis.)
The irony is that as the only woman in the Republican field, Fiorina has a golden opportunity to stand up for the reproductive and healthcare rights that her rivals are trampling over at every turn. Instead, she's setting a new standard for exploiting innuendo and lies to take those rights away. She now faces a test of character: Will she set the record straight?