A congressional hearing on Planned Parenthood Wednesday was less about the women's health provider than about the procedure of abortion itself.
Republicans described in graphic detail an abortion procedure called "dilation and extraction" in which a fetus is dismembered inside the womb. They talked about infanticide. They raised the question of whether fetuses are saved after botched abortions.
"It is the worst human rights atrocity in the history of the United States of America," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. "What is so liberating about dismembering little human babies?"
For their part, Democrats defended women's legal right under Roe v. Wade to have an abortion. They defended fetal tissue research. And they hammered Republicans for not also investigating the makers of recent controversial videos targeting Planned Parenthood.
"This hearing is not about the videos — it's show business," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "This hearing is about a woman's right to choose."
The House Judiciary Committee hearing was one of several Republicans are planning against Planned Parenthood, after the group's involvement in providing aborted fetal tissue for medical research was highlighted in a series of undercover videos.
Republicans are seeking to prove that the women's health and abortion provider broke the law by illegally profiting from selling the tissue or performing partial birth abortions. The undercover footage, obtained by anti-abortion investigator David Daleiden, features top Planned Parenthood officials and employees of biomedical companies that have contracted with some of its affiliates for human tissue.
It's not clear from the videos whether Planned Parenthood did anything illegal, although the group says it hasn't. Some of its clinics have been paid for providing human tissue, but that is allowed under the law as long as only overhead costs are compensated. And while the videos allege some Planned Parenthood doctors performed illegal partial-birth abortions, they don't provide direct proof that happened.
Republicans didn't provide any new evidence at the Wednesday hearing, which, according to committee Democratic staff, is because they have none.
Nor did they invite Planned Parenthood officials or Daleiden to testify, GOP staff confirmed. The hearing instead featured an attorney from National Right to Life with two women dubbed "abortion survivors." Democrats were allowed one witness, Yale Law School professor Priscilla Smith.
"The people who made these videos are liars in a long line of liars," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. "Mr. Chairman, if you had even a bit of real confidence in the man who made these videos, you would have brought him before this committee, but you didn't."
But to Republicans, the videos give them an opportunity to keep the controversial topic of abortion in the spotlight and highlight how it's performed, in ways that make many abortion rights supporters uncomfortable. Several members drilled Smith on whether it's considered murder to neglect to save the life of a fetus that remains alive after an attempted abortion.
Other Republicans brought up the 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged a fetus could remain alive during a dilation and extraction procedure even while its limbs were being removed.
"For anybody to say that procedure and what you just described is humane ... defies my imagination," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va. "I can't imagine that happening to one of my pets, much less an unborn child."
Planned Parenthood has apologized for the "tone" used by some of its officials, who appeared to discuss compensation for fetal tissue in a cavalier manner. But the group has strongly defended itself to Congress in an August letter to House and Senate leaders in which President Cecile Richards said her group "adheres to the highest standards and follows all laws."
The group called the Wednesday hearing "political theater at its very worst."
"It's clear this hearing was not about Planned Parenthood — it was a chance for anti-abortion extremists and members of Congress to promote their political agenda of banning abortion in this country," said Planned Parenthood Vice President Dawn Laguens.
Besides the House Judiciary Committee, two other panels are investigating the group: House Energy and Commerce and House Oversight.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the party affiliation of Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. The Washington Examiner regrets the error.