At Wednesday's debate, Carly Fiorina received thunderous applause for challenging Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to watch a specific scene from the Planned Parenthood sting tapes. The scene, she said, showed "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."
But when asked for a citation, her campaign replied with a video that isn't from the Planned Parenthood sting tapes at all — and that still doesn't show what Fiorina said it did.
Over email, campaign spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores pointed to a one-minute clip from a YouTube account called "Save Babies." That's different from the Center for Medical Progress, the group behind the sting videos. At the time, the video had accrued just over 800 views.
The "Save Babies" video includes clips of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi talking about women's health. It includes some footage from the Planned Parenthood sting videos where technicians identify fetal body parts in petri dishes. There is additional stock footage of full fetuses — again, not shot in Planned Parenthood clinics, and also not used in the original Human Capital videos. There is audio from a former StemExpress employee (a company Planned Parenthood contracted with to procure fetal tissue) describing her own experience with another technician: "She gave me the scissors and told me to cut down the middle of the face."
It ends with the words "This is Planned Parenthood" over a late-stage fetus who, according to the identifying information next to it, was "killed by saline abortion" at "University of Wisconsin Hospital in the 1980s."
What the video does not show is the scene Fiorina described. While there is discussion from the former StemExpress employer of procuring fetal brain tissue — a practice Planned Parenthood openly admits happens in its clinics — there is no discussion of keeping a fetus alive for that purpose. There are videos of fetuses moving and kicking, but those were not shot at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
The best defense of Fiorina's remarks
I sent Fiorina's spokeswoman a second email outlining my questions, and asking her again to point me to the video that Fiorina meant to reference in her remarks. She replied with a link to the Federalist's Mollie Hemingway's recent piece, "Watch the video that Planned Parenthood and its media allies deny exists."
Most of Hemingway's piece focuses on Episode 3 of Human Capital, a mini-documentary series from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, which conducted the Planned Parenthood sting. The Human Capital series includes footage of fetuses from a separate source (The Center for Bioethical Reform) and an interview with a former employee of StemExpress, a company that procures human tissue for researchers.
"It does, in fact, show a fully formed fetus, heart beating and legs kicking," Hemingway writes. "And it shows this while Holly O’Donnell, a former organ harvester who worked for StemExpress at a Planned Parenthood affiliate, graphically discuss the harvesting of a brain from a baby whose heart was beating."
Hemingway is right; these things are in the Human Capital video. But they still are not the scene that Fiorina describes. There's no footage of the moment O'Donnell describes, nor is there proof offered that it occurred — there's no moment to "watch," as Fiorina urged debate viewers.
Moreover, the footage of the fetus in that video isn't from the Planned Parenthood videos. One image is of a stillborn baby, initially included in the video without the mother's permission. Other footage appears to come from a collection of stock footage of fetuses. "The stock footage was added to the video to dramatize its content," fact-checking website Politifact concluded. "We don’t know the circumstances behind this video: where it came from, under what conditions it was obtained, or even if this fetus was actually aborted (as opposed to a premature birth or miscarriage)."
The most generous reading of Fiorina's remarks are that she mistook what she saw in the videos. It is possible to watch the Human Capital video and think the footage of fetuses was shot in a clinic; this is, after all, a documentary about Planned Parenthood. And when she discussed "someone saying we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain," she may have mistook something the former StemExpress technician says in the same video, where she describes the fetus as being "intact."
But this isn't the defense that Fiorina has offered. "Rest assured, I have seen the images I talked about last night," she told Good Morning America Thursday morning. If these images Fiorina says she's seen do exist, she still has not shared them.
The real controversy over the Planned Parenthood tapes isn't about what Fiorina saw. It's about abortion.
The disagreement at the heart of the Planned Parenthood videos debate isn't really about what Fiorina saw. It's about the morality of fetal tissue research — and abortion.
What these videos try to do is split the people who are actually comfortable with abortion from those who support it uncomfortably, and who might be repelled by the idea that aborted fetuses are being used for medical research. That's why there is the stock footage of fetuses and images of a stillborn baby, even though they are unrelated to the work Planned Parenthood does.
But the real divide here isn't about what Fiorina saw. It's about abortion. Planned Parenthood workers are comfortable with fetal tissue research because they are comfortable with abortion — they don't believe a first-trimester fetus to be a living, feeling human being, and so they see the donation of fetal tissue for medical research to be an obvious, unalloyed good. Abortion rights supporters can watch the videos and still believe in a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.
"Women know about blood," Rebecca Traister writes in New York Magazine. "We know about discharge. We know about babies, and many of us also love them, their little feet and hands and eyelashes. And, yes, we know that those bitty features develop while the fetus is inside us."
Their critics oppose abortion — they believe abortion to be murder and fetal tissue research to be a form of desecration. They point to the images of a fetus in a video and say, it doesn't matter if that footage is from a Planned Parenthood clinic. The fact that such developed fetuses could be ones terminated in one of their facilities is reason enough for disgust. Where you fall on the Planned Parenthood videos really reflects where you fall on the fundamental questions of abortion.