Eliot Spitzer Yields Podium to Planned Parenthood Head, Barely Scrutinizes Organization

Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest abortion provider, the controversial recipient of government funds, and is criticized by some for its lack of transparency – and yet CNN's Eliot Spitzer gave president Cecile Richards a free pass in a Wednesday night interview.

Could Spitzer's leniency be due to the fact that he enjoyed the endorsement of Planned Parenthood when he ran for governor of New York? Before he was ousted in a prostitution scandal, Spitzer was stridently pro-abortion as the state's governor. Pro-abortion group NARAL's New York PAC bragged that the organization was "central" to his 1998 victory when he ran for Attorney General of New York.

Spitzer opened the segment innocently identifying Planned Parenthood as "the country's largest family planning provider," and reported that three states are "stripping" the organization of government funding.

Then he pressed Richards as to why the organization was "playing defense" after citing two statistics claiming public opinion of Planned Parenthood is not so negative. Later he asked her if Planned Parenthood has made any headway in gaining support from the Republican Party.

Richards spun that the organization is finding "enormous support" from both parties nationwide. Given that the latest Republican congress is largely pro-life and Republican-controlled state legislatures have voted to defund Planned Parenthood, one can only wonder where exactly the "enormous support" from the GOP is coming from. Spitzer, of course, failed to ask.

The rest of the interview was mostly Richards explaining the organization's mission, fending off conservative attacks, and clarifying that abortions constitute a fraction of the services Planned Parenthood provides.

When the choice comes to referring women to abortion or adoption, Planned Parenthood overwhelmingly chooses abortion. Abortion patients also largely outnumber pre-natal care patients at Planned Parenthood clinics. And yes, Spitzer was mostly content not to bring up these facts and give the counter-argument to Richard's spin.

The more laughable moment may have come when Richards claimed transparency – "we are very transparent about all the services we provide." Spitzer simply kept on going with the interview, content not to hold her feet to the fire. He did not mention conservative activist group Live Action's report earlier this spring that documented multiple cases of clinics telling Live Action that they did not offer mammograms – despite claims to the contrary by Richards.

A transcript of the interview, which aired on June 15 at 8:13 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

ELIOT SPITZER: In tonight's "American Issues" segment, are we seeing the beginning of the end of abortion rights in this country? Today a third state has voted to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. North Carolina joins Indiana and Kansas in stripping the country's largest family planning provider of government funds. And three other states are on the verge of doing the same. This on the heels of the vicious war on Capitol Hill earlier this spring when Republicans risked a government shutdown to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

Tomorrow we'll be speaking with an abortion rights opponent, someone who agrees with the move in North Carolina today. But first, tonight, joining me here is Cecile Richard, president of Planned Parenthood. Thank you so much for being here.

CECILE RICHARDS, president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America: Thanks for having me.

SPITZER: Look, here's what I don't understand. It's kind of a political question. 65 percent of the public supports government funding for Planned Parenthood.

RICHARDS: Correct.

SPITZER: Over 50 percent of the public supports abortion rights either in all cases or most cases. So why have you been playing defense for the past two years?

RICHARDS: Well, I don't think we've been playing defense at all, I think. Planned Parenthood is the largest family planning provider in the country. We see three million patients a year. And despite the political winds, whatever is happening, women continue to come to us for services, you know. And we are – again we provide family planning, we provide cancer screenings. And unfortunately these moves by the legislatures in Indiana and North Carolina are really targeting those services that women need to stay healthy.

SPITZER: But to come back to the issue of whether you are playing defense, and it seems to me that for a number of years the issue of abortion rights to a certain extent had taken a step back from the political arena. There wasn't this day-to-day battle either for funding or in litigation about what defined the parameters of abortion rights. We're back to seeing it in the political arena again. Is it just a presidential year therefore it's raised?

RICHARDS: I think what we saw is a rightward shift in the, you know, in the voting that happened in November. Unfortunately, of course, what the voters really wanted to see as a result of those elections was people going back to work. They were frustrated about the economy.  Unfortunately the result has been these legislatures are attacking women and attacking women's health care. That's not what the American people want. And as you said yourself, more than two- thirds of the American people believe Planned Parenthood should be able to provide services to women, particularly the preventive care that we're known for.

SPITZER: Look, there was no question watching the Republican presidential debate a couple of nights ago. Most of the focus was on economic issues. And yet when the issues relating to the social agenda were asked, a uniformity across the board over hostility to abortion rights. Is there any crack in the Republican Party? Are you finding any support within the Republican national agenda for choice, abortion rights?

RICHARDS: Well, we're finding enormous support for Planned Parenthood by Republicans and Democrats across the country. And what we saw, of course, in the vote in the United States Senate, that five United States senators from the Republican Party voted in support of Planned Parenthood, in support of Planned Parenthood being able to provide services. I think it's a political miscalculation, Eliot. I think that they are playing politics with women's health care. And when you talk about – we're not even talking about abortion here. The moves by these legislatures and the efforts by the U.S. Congress were to eliminate access for women to get access to life-saving breast cancer screenings, pap smears and birth control. And the American people don't want that.

SPITZER: Well, you're making an important point. Some of the battle obviously relates to funding for abortion services, but that's already illegal.

RICHARDS: That's exactly right. The Hyde amendment of course has prohibited federal funding for abortion for decades. And so really what's at stake here is whether or not women in this country and the three million women who turn to Planned Parenthood each year will continue to be able to come to us for birth control services as well as cancer screenings.

SPITZER: OK. Now you have a budget of about $1.1 billion, am I correct, of which about 363 million comes from the federal government – from government sources?

RICHARDS: Roughly. Roughly.

SPITZER: So you're talking about that 363 out of $1.1 billion total. And what you say is what percentage of your services total relate to abortion?

RICHARDS: We – 97 percent of our services are preventive care. So about 3 percent of our services are abortion related.

SPITZER: And by preventive care, you would mean what?

RICHARDS: It's everything from – we do – we provide birth control to 2.5 million patients each year. We do 830,000 breast exams, about a million pap smears, and we provide sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment for more than four million tests each year.

SPITZER: And so your assertion is that 3 percent of your procedures relate to abortions.

RICHARDS: That's exactly correct. And, in fact, I think what's important – and some of our – some folks, self-described pro-life members of Congress support Planned Parenthood. They said, you know, the most important thing we can do in this country and to reduce the need for abortion is to make sure every woman in America gets access to high-quality affordable family planning. That's what Planned Parenthood does more than any organization in the country.

SPITZER: And so then let me ask you the hard question.

RICHARDS: Sure.

SPITZER: Three percent of your services do relate to abortion. You get about a third of your budget from government services. How do you make sure that the money you get from government doesn't go to those services, which is prohibited by the Hyde amendment?

RICHARDS: Well, it's prohibited. We, you know, we report like – we work like every other hospital in America, every other medical provider. And we are reimbursed by the federal – from the federal government exactly for the services we provide.

And again, I think that's – I'm glad you're raising this point, because what's really important, as you look at the state of Indiana where Governor Daniels just signed a law that would prohibit women in Indiana from going to Planned Parenthood, not for abortion services but for birth control, for lifesaving cancer screenings.

SPITZER: OK. Accepting the ban they're trying to put in place would expand way beyond abortion services, here's my question.

RICHARDS: Exactly.

SPITZER: The three percent figure I do think maybe that's a little bit unfair. You provide 11 million visits with – with people coming into Planned Parenthood each year. Only about 360,000 are abortions.

RICHARDS: Right.

SPITZER: So 360,000 is only 3 percent of the 11 million, but really that takes up more than 3 percent – providing an abortion is a bigger procedure than simply giving somebody a test and certain other regards, right? So the three percent is really more than that in terms of your total services provided.

RICHARDS: No, I mean we – well, we are very transparent about all the services we provide.  And what's – I mean I think what's really important here, what's at issue, is not abortion services. What's at issue here, and what these laws are preventing is women from getting preventive care. And again, for many people they would say the real crime in America is, you know, we see three million patients for birth – 2.5 million for birth control every year.

SPITZER: Right.

RICHARDS: There are millions more women in this country who need access to affordable family planning and can't get it. And at a time in this country when women are struggling, I hear from then every day. They write me every day, saying, I'm just trying to make ends meet. I can't believe that the state legislature or the U.S. Congress is going to tell me I can't get, where I've been going to Planned Parenthood for years for my preventive care, for my birth control, and they're telling me now I can't go to the health care provider that I trust with my health.

SPITZER: But you're saying that you are no different than any other hospital that provides the full array of medical services.

RICHARDS: Absolutely.

SPITZER: And just like you was already prohibited from using government money for abortions.

RICHARDS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, and I think really, this is – I think the reason we're seeing such outrage around the country from men and women, Republicans, Democrats, is this is really going to the heart of health care. And I think of the state legislators in North Carolina, I wouldn't want on my conscience voting against access for women that could help detect early breast cancer screening and get women care. And that's what we're talking about.

SPITZER: All right. Cecile Richards, thank you so much.

Tomorrow night we'll hear from someone on the other side of this issue. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014