WASHINGTON — Maine’s U.S. senators took similar positions Monday in a controversial debate over federal funding for Planned Parenthood following the release of a series of undercover videos by an anti-abortion group.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, made speeches in the Senate urging their colleagues to oppose completely defunding the nonprofit organization that provides health care services to women and their families in Maine and across the nation.

King and Collins said the scope of the services the organization provides to Maine women and their families includes cancer screenings, birth control, HIV testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

The measure to hold a debate on the bill failed to gain the 60 votes needed to move it forward. Fifty-three senators voted for the measure, including Collins, and 46 opposed, including King.

Planned Parenthood is at the center of national uproar following the release of undercover videos by an anti-abortion group that suggest some of the nonprofit’s clinics were profiting from the sale of fetal tissue removed during abortion procedures.

The videos have unleashed an immediate and angry response from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Washington. Prior to a vote that would have moved a bill to strip all federal funding from Planned Parenthood to the Senate floor, both King and Collins urged their colleagues to focus on the facts.

Collins also offered an amendment that would have required a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the fetal tissue allegations with a report to Congress within 90 days.

Collins expressed her outrage at the content of the videos that have been released in both edited and unedited version and appear to show Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the sale of fetal tissue — banned under federal law — as a means to help fund the organization.

“I was sickened when I viewed the recently released videos,” Collins said. “The callousness with which Planned Parenthood employees discussed the sale of fetal tissue is appalling and it deserves our attention.”

She said the videos also “raised valid questions about the ethics and the legality of Planned Parenthood’s practices in some of its clinics, albeit a minority of its clinics.”

Collins said, “a full investigation is warranted to determine whether or not Planned Parenthood broke the law prohibiting the sale of fetal tissue.”

Conservatives view the videos as a political opportunity to galvanize support for banning abortions and, some hope, prohibiting fetal tissue research. But the issue is cutting both ways, with both sides using it for fundraising solicitations.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said supporters of Planned Parenthood say that federal funds going to the organization are not used for abortion services, but conservatives opposed to abortion don’t buy the argument.

“Of course what brought us here to this point most immediately was because our collective conscious was shocked by videos depicting Planned Parenthood executives discussing the harvesting and sale of the organs of unborn babies, an abhorrent and disgusting practice that we cannot ignore,” Cornyn said.

Planned Parenthood has apologized for comments in the video but says it has broken no laws. It accuses opponents of using selectively edited videos for their latest assault on abortion and women’s health choices.

The group also says it is among many organizations assisting fetal tissue research, a decades-old field scientists use to study Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Nicole Clegg, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Maine, said they were urging both King and Collins to oppose efforts to defund the organization.

Collins also said she had reason to believe that none of the practices portrayed in the videos at the heart of the scandal were taking place in Maine.

She said the bill that strips Planned Parenthood of its federal funding and sends the money instead to community health clinics would only create a huge gap in health care coverage for women in Maine.

“In my state, the four Planned Parenthood clinics see almost 40 percent of the patients seeking Title X family planning services and they treat virtually all of the patients seeking those services in southern Maine.”

Collins said the remaining 20 community clinics in Maine that also receive federal funds for family planning services see only 17 percent of the patients seeking those services.

“If we were to defund Planned Parenthood, other family planning clinics in Maine, including community health centers, would see a 63 percent increase in their patient load. They would be forced to absorb 8,583 more patients if federal funds to Planned Parenthood were eliminated.”

Collins also said that the bulk of those community health centers are in central, western and northern Maine. “None are in the area that is served by Planned Parenthood in southern Maine. I just don’t see how we can ensure that all of the patients currently served by Planned Parenthood can be absorbed by alternative health care providers.”

Both she and King said that the bill to strip Planned Parenthood of its funding would also require women to give up the health providers of their choice.

“When we don’t yet know all of the facts,” Collins said.

In his speech just moments before Collins, King said, “This is a bill to keep you away from your doctor. The doctor you have been seeing and have confidence in at a clinic run by Planned Parenthood.”

King said conservatives arguing against the Affordable Care Act had made the same point.

He also said that anti-abortion lawmakers wanted to use the current controversy to revisit the legality of abortion in the U.S., which has already been decided by the Supreme Court.

“The issue is not about abortion, it is not about Planned Parenthood, it’s not about contraception, it’s about fetal tissue and the uses of fetal tissue and how fetal tissue should be controlled and whether or not it should be allowed to be used for medical research,” King said. “But that’s a debate we should have on that issue. There is no reason that we should be defunding Planned Parenthood because of the debate we may or may not want to have in the future about the use of fetal tissue.”

King said voting for the bill would be a vote to deny medical services to largely low-income women because of an issue “that has nothing to do with the 97 percent of the services that Planned Parenthood provides.”

“To me,” King said, “this bill is like attacking Brazil after Pearl Harbor. It’s a vigorous response but it’s the wrong target.”


Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.