On Hearings and Being Heard

By Richard Nelson

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October 1, 2015

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Last Tuesday Cecil Richards appeared before the House Oversight Committee to deliberate about the use of taxpayer funds for her organization, Planned Parenthood. The organization came under fire when videos released by the Center for Medical Progress uncovered the trading in dismembered aborted babies for medical research. For a large part of Tuesday, House Republicans and Democrats exchanged dialogue with Richards, some of it helpful, some completely unhelpful. 

At the conclusion of the event, I sat nearly slack-jawed. I was not this way because of what Cecil Richards said, though that itself could cause an entire room to sit in astonishment. The incredulity I felt was squarely on the shoulder of the Republican leadership questioning Cecile Richards. There had been ample time to prepare before this hearing, ample time to frame carefully-worded questions, time to anticipate what may or not may not be said by Richards, and to craft potential rebuttals. I saw almost nothing of the sort in that room. While the Democratic leadership took every opportunity—as is their right—to laud Planned Parenthood and their services, it was a far easier task to perform because of the level of insufficient questioning coming from Republicans. Several statements Richards made could have been pressed further than the leadership went. For example, she claimed to never have known of an example of a baby born-alive from a botched abortion. Just a few weeks before this hearing, two testimonies of botched abortion survivors were told to the House Judiciary Committee. Why did they not press her further? She attempted to wiggle out of the question by stating she was not aware of this at any “planned parenthood facility,” but that was not her initial statement. Why weren't the testimonies from earlier this month mentioned in this exchange? 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect was the tone by which the questions were presented. Almost every single Republican came off angry. They interrupted Richards on multiple occasions, and spoke in a rather condescending tone. Anyone watching the hearing at even a cursory glance picked up on the tonality, and it was not favorable. People should be upset at what is unfolding across Planned Parenthood facilities across the country, but there is a way to present such frustration in a civil manner. Representatives should still honor their opponents, even when they abhor their ideas. 
 
It was not all bad. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) made an excellent point that the nature of the issue here boils down to politics. 100% of the $12 million dollars spent by Planned Parenthood in the 2012 election went to Democratic candidates. 100%. Another representative made an excellent case that Planned Parenthood could function absent federal dollars, though it could not expand. But Richards was not defending expansion, but rather the base use of Planned Parenthood. That, in the end, is two different appropriations of federal dollars. 

The upshot is this: if you are attempting to present Planned Parenthood in a negative light—and we should—how you speak your judgments matters almost as much as what you speak. That was lost here, and that’s a big mistake.

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