Abortion foes' dirty tactics

Advocates of a California "parental notification" bill accuse Planned Parenthood of protecting sexual predators instead of teen girls. But who is really breaking the law?

Published November 4, 2006 2:45PM (EST)

Advocates for California's Proposition 85, a ballot initiative that would require parental notification before a minor has an abortion, aren't afraid to play dirty to win. They're even telling voters that Planned Parenthood covers up the sexual abuse of young girls, although the evidence to support this allegation was fabricated and may have been acquired illegally.

Supporters of Proposition 85 are attempting to convince voters that requiring parental notification is crucial to preventing older men from taking advantage of underage girls. They say that abortion providers like Planned Parenthood routinely stand by while girls as young as 13 are preyed upon by grown men who seduce them, get them pregnant, and then bring them into clinics for abortions, all without the girls' parents having a clue. To make their case, they've dug up recordings of phone calls made four years ago by antiabortion group Life Dynamics that supposedly show Planned Parenthood employees ignoring laws that require them to report to authorities any suspicion of abuse -- including statutory rape.

"The tapes prove pretty unequivocally that Planned Parenthood is protecting men who sexually abuse children," insists Albin Rhomberg, spokesperson for the Yes on 85 campaign. "In short, they're engaging in predator protection, and that's outrageous."

What's more outrageous, argue opponents of Proposition 85, are the accusations themselves, which are based on dubious evidence. "If you listen to those tapes in their entirety," says Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, "you can tell that they were designed to entrap our staff." Life Dynamics admits the calls were not, in fact, made by actual pregnant teenagers. "These actors playing young girls really prey on our staff's concern for getting these girls into care," she says.

Kneer calls the recordings a "smear campaign" and notes that though they have been out in the public domain for four years, no employee of Planned Parenthood has yet been charged with coddling statutory rapists because of the tapes. "If there was any proof that we have been covering up for child sexual predators, you can assume that we would have been facing real charges. Does that mean that law enforcement in 50 states has participated in this coverup? Does that mean district attorneys in every state have too?"

Back in 2002, Life Dynamics, based in Denton, Texas, conducted an elaborate sting operation, placing more than 800 phone calls, it claims, to family-planning clinics around the country. A woman impersonating a 13-year-old girl would call a clinic, ostensibly to schedule an abortion. The goal of the calls was to record the response of the clinic receptionist when told the girl on the line was 13 years old and that the man who had allegedly impregnated her was 22. Life Dynamics posted audio files and transcripts from the calls on the Web at ChildPredators.com. The organization then claimed that the tapes proved that 91 percent of the clinics called didn't fulfill their legal obligation to report statutory rape, instead choosing to "sell more abortions, more birth control products and more treatments for sexually transmitted diseases when they turn a blind eye to child rape."

The tapes and accusations prompted the state of Connecticut to launch a criminal investigation into the alleged coverup. The investigation soon collapsed since there were no real pregnant teens involved, and hence no victims. The recordings have also made waves in Nebraska, Alabama and West Virginia, where they have been used by antiabortion groups. In 2002, Nebraskans United for Life employed them to pressure the state's attorney general to investigate abortion providers. In February 2006, Alabama Alliance against Abortion played excerpts from the calls at a rally outside the statehouse in Montgomery, during which the group accused the state's attorney general of being soft on sex offenders. Also in February, West Virginians for Life used the clips as part of a failed campaign to strengthen West Virginia's parental notification law.

Life Dynamics is the same group that in the late '90s promoted the myth that abortion providers illicitly traffic in the sale of fetal tissue. In March 2000, sparked by a report on "20/20" that included the Life Dynamics claim, Congress launched an investigation of the supposed traffic. But the inquiry floundered when the star witness, a medical technician, admitted under oath that he'd lied on camera to "20/20" about witnessing fetal tissue smuggling and that he had been paid more than $20,000 by Life Dynamics. "By the end of the hearing, even the legislators who were opposed to choice said that Life Dynamics had no credibility," says Vicky Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation.

But the credibility of Life Dynamics is apparently no problem for California's Yes on 85 campaign. The campaign is using the tapes and transcripts of the calls made to California clinics from the Life Dynamics' archive. It features them on its Web site under the heading: "Voting YES on Prop 85 will protect young girls from sexual abuse. Hear Planned Parenthood staff in many California cities caught on tape telling a 13-year-old girl that they will conceal her sexual exploitation by a 22-year-old predator."

As for the legality of the recordings themselves, 12 states require that everyone participating in a phone call must be aware that the call is being recorded before it can be taped. By design, receptionists at the clinics had no clue that they were being recorded by Life Dynamics. Mark Crutcher, the founder and president of Life Dynamics, refuses to comment on the legality of recording the calls. "I wouldn't comment in any shape, form or fashion on an abortion-related issue to Salon. You guys have made your position pretty clear over the years. I wouldn't comment on anything to you guys, unfortunately."

Both Connecticut and California are among the states that require consent from all parties to a call before recording. The California State Supreme Court recently affirmed that California's prohibition applies even to calls originating from another state. In California, the making of such recordings could be prosecuted as a criminal misdemeanor, and a civil case could also be brought, according to the California Women's Law Center. The penalty for this criminal misdemeanor is a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in the county jail. Each call involving a California victim could constitute a separate charge, and the Yes on 85 site currently links to more than 90 calls to California clinics. If a receptionist who took one of the calls filed a civil suit, the penalty could be $5,000, or three times her actual damages. For instance, if she had lost her job for how she performed on the recorded call, she could seek restitution for lost wages during her unemployment. To date, however, no one has filed criminal charges or initiated civil proceedings against Life Dynamics because of the tapes.

Asked about the legality of the recordings, Yes on 85's Rhomberg dodged responsibility, saying in an interview that "our campaign didn't have anything to do with recording those conversations as such." But he compared Life Dynamics breaking California laws to make the recordings to a hero who violates a trespassing law to run into a burning building to save an imperiled child: "An ordinary person knows you have an obligation to violate the law and rescue the child," Rhomberg said.

Some 34 states have laws that require parental notification or consent when minors seek abortion. But no such law exists in California, whose voters just last year rejected a proposition very similar to this year's, by a 53-47 margin. The campaign to pass Proposition 85 is backed financially by San Diego antiabortion activist James Holman, who is the publisher of several Catholic weeklies, and Don Sebastiani, a Sonoma winemaker who is a former member of the California Assembly. The groups opposing the proposition include Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. A Field Poll released on Nov. 2 found that California voters are closely divided on the measure, with 46 percent in favor, 43 percent opposed, and 11 percent still undecided, just days before the election. The margin of error on the poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

This year, the proposition's advocates are playing the sexual predator card. In addition to featuring the calls made to California clinics, on its Web site, Yes on 85 is also excerpting them on YouTube, in automated phone calls to voters, in a DVD distributed to reporters, and even in a fundraising letter. On talk radio shows from Redding in the north to San Diego in the south, advocates for the proposition have discussed the tapes, directing listeners to their Web site to hear them.

On the recordings, the receptionists give a range of responses to the fake 13-year-old with the fake 22-year-old boyfriend who calls to make an appointment for an abortion. Some receptionists don't remark on the boyfriend's age, while assuring the girl that the abortion would be kept confidential. Other receptionists inform the girl that under California law, because of the age difference, the relationship will have to be reported to authorities when she comes into the clinic. On one call, the receptionist advises the girl not to reveal the boyfriend's age when she comes in, because it would have to be reported.

"That kind of coaching is vile," says Yes on 85's Rhomberg. "They're coaching her to evade their responsibility." The Yes on 85 Web site declares: "In defiance of California state laws Planned Parenthood staff told the young girl they would not report her statutory rape to the police or child protective authorities." Planned Parenthood maintains the sting proves nothing of the sort, since that responsibility falls to the actual clinicians who see the patient, not the receptionist who takes the phone call. Doctors and nurses are mandated by the state to report even a suspicion of child sexual abuse. As Kneer notes, "The receptionist's job is to get the patient to come into care. The healthcare professional staff has the responsibility to screen, assess and report suspicions of child sexual abuse."

The law makes a distinction between the responsibilities of a licensed healthcare provider and of a clerical worker performing an administrative function. "An organization like Planned Parenthood is not required to do anything when someone calls a receptionist or makes an appointment," says Katie Buckland, executive director of the California Women's Law Center, who is a lawyer. "If you're concerned about incest, statutory rape or abuse, the most important thing is to get a child to see a doctor. There's nothing reportable about an anonymous phone call, because realistically what would the police do with that information?"

But if a real pregnant 13-year-old does come in, and a doctor or nurse suspects, say, incest or child sexual abuse, there are two competing laws at work. "On the one hand, [the girl] has the right to keep medical information about her pregnancy confidential," says Buckland, which is why the receptionists on the phone stress confidentiality. "On the other hand, they are required to report a suspected case of incest," but that duty belongs to doctors and nurses, not to "someone who would be answering the telephone."

Suspected abuse can be reported either to the police or child protective services. And in 2005, a federal inspection conducted by the Office of the Inspector General of the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services found that that's exactly what happens when a child who may have been abused comes into a family planning clinic. The inquiry yielded no evidence of clinics around the nation failing to comply with laws on reporting child abuse, child molestation, sexual abuse, rape or incest.

As for the tapes, Buckland says that her organization may ask the Los Angeles police to investigate the recordings after the Nov. 7 election. "It's not something that we'd pursue at this moment, because we don't want to drive more people to their Web site. This is an initiative that voters have rejected in the past. I fully expect them to reject it again, but there's enough campaign rhetoric out there right now."

Planned Parenthood and its receptionists have avoided filing a civil suit for similar reasons; they worry that drawing more attention to the calls would only generate publicity for the other side. "I actually think that they're pissed we haven't sued," says Kneer. Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics has admitted as much. Speaking with a local ABC News affiliate, he said: "I have done everything I can to lure these people into suing us." And he actively goaded California's attorney general Bill Lockyer to take up the case: "The attorney general out there," Crutcher said, "this radical, hard-core, leftist, godless pro-abort [sic] that you have for attorney general, needs to file charges against us."

Whether the tapes were made illegally will be irrelevant on Nov. 7 if they help sway voters who are on the fence about Proposition 85, by recasting the proposition as a way to crack down on sexual predators. After all, there's another proposition on the California ballot this November which actually would tighten restrictions on sexually violent predators. According to recent polls, three-quarters of likely voters favor it.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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2006 Elections Abortion