After months of controversy, multiple investigations and a campaign by congressional Republicans to end its federal funding, Planned Parenthood said Tuesday that it would continue harvesting fetal tissue for medical research but would no longer accept payment to cover its related expenses.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, announced the group's decision in a letter to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH runs major research programs, some of which use fetal tissue procured from abortions.
"Over the last two months, opponents of safe and legal abortion have turned patently false claims about our role in fetal tissue donation into fodder to advance their extreme political agenda," Richards wrote in the letter, which was released Tuesday.
The results of that campaign, she said, included "votes in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate that would have blocked Planned Parenthood from receiving federal reimbursements for providing cancer screenings and other preventive care."
The campaign, Richards said, has not been successful, but it is not over.
Planned Parenthood's latest move follows the release of a series of grisly videos by antiabortion activists, who charged that the organization sought to profit from its program to supply fetal tissue from abortions to researchers.
Planned Parenthood argued that the videos were deceptive in their editing and denied seeking any payments beyond money to reimburse costs, which is allowed by law.
The videos were released by an antiabortion group called the Center for Medical Progress, and showed activists posing as representatives of a biomedical firm and trying to negotiate the purchase of fetal organs from some Planned Parenthood personnel.
The videos set off protests among antiabortion Republicans in the House of Representatives, who renewed efforts to cut the group's federal funding. Most of the federal funding involves aid to Medicaid patients receiving a range of health services.
Four congressional committees have been investigating Planned Parenthood. The House also voted to form a special committee to examine the organization. Last month, Richards was grilled for nearly five hours during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.
The response to Planned Parenthood's announcement Tuesday was as heated as the months-long campaign against the group.
David Daleiden, founder of the Center for Medical Progress, called the policy change "an admission of guilt."
"If the money Planned Parenthood has been receiving for baby body parts were truly legitimate 'reimbursement,' why cancel it?" Daleiden asked in a statement. "This proves what CMP has been saying all along — Planned Parenthood incurs no actual costs, and the payments for harvested fetal parts have always been an extra profit margin."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said that Planned Parenthood's announcement "certainly does not excuse the horrific practices brought to light in the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress."
However, six states that launched investigations after the CMP campaign — including Massachusetts, Indiana and Pennsylvania — have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. Seven states declined to investigate, and 11 others are still looking into the organization's practices.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said Tuesday that Planned Parenthood's decision made sense. "Even though the law allows for reasonable expenses, this change eliminates any remaining argument by opponents and demonstrates how critical this type of research is for millions of Americans."
Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood executive vice president, said in an interview Tuesday that fetal tissue donation only occurs in Washington state and California.
The group's Washington affiliate already harvested fetal tissue for research without reimbursement, she said, and the California affiliate stopped being reimbursed as of this week.
Laguens said it is difficult to put a dollar figure on reimbursement, but it is a "small number. That's why we can very easily say that Planned Parenthood will now cover the costs" of fetal tissue donation.
The decision, Laguens said, "bubbled up from the field," from Planned Parenthood leaders around the country who said that they were "tired of these guys hiding their attacks on abortion behind these false charges."
"For the small number of Planned Parenthood affiliates that do this work or have ever done this, it has always been about only one thing — honoring the desire of women who want to donate," Laguens said.
"The videos have been pretty thoroughly discredited," she said. "We wanted to be able to blow away the smokescreen that these folks are using.... We are really taking away the cover they hide behind in going after Planned Parenthood and other women's health providers."