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The bitter debate over Planned Parenthood is continuing -- on the presidential campaign trail, in the halls of Congress, and on cable news
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has repeatedly criticized the group after getting wide attention for her comments during the second Republican debate, when she said that an undercover video about Planned Parenthood shows "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.' " (We rated that Mostly False.)
During the Sept. 30, 2015, edition of the Fox News show Hannity, Fiorina said that Planned Parenthood "is an organization that funnels millions of dollars in political contributions to pro-abortion candidates."
We wondered if Fiorina was right, so we turned to the campaign-finance data. It turns out she’s on solid ground.
Here are the two major categories of Planned Parenthood spending from the 2014 campaign cycle:
Source of spending
Type of spending
Amount spent, 2014 cycle
Contributions to candidates and parties
Let’s unpack these numbers a bit.
The first line, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, refers to the amount spent by the group’s main political action committee. A political action committee is a group that bundles money donated voluntarily, including that from employees and their families, to be spent for political purposes. A PAC is legally distinct from the organization for which it advocates, and it must maintain separate bank accounts. PACs can give directly to candidates.
The second line includes dollars spent by Planned Parenthood-related groups that are allowed to raise and spend money more freely, but which are not allowed to give money directly to or coordinate with candidates. These are primarily known as Super PACs and 501(c)4 organizations.
So, combining these three categories of expenditures produces roughly $6.6 million in political spending just for the 2014 cycle. That number would go up if other recent election cycles were added in. So Fiorina has a point.
It’s important to note that all of the reported expenditures on this list come from entities that are legally allowed to spend money in politics. While the operational, medical clinics of Planned Parenthood cannot spend money in politics, all the affiliates listed in the table are organized in such a way that they are allowed to make campaign donations or spend money in other ways on elections. Also, federal dollars flow only to the operational arms of Planned Parenthood, which by law are not allowed to spend money on politics.
Despite the legal distinctions between these groups and what they can, and cannot, do in elections, it’s easy to see why there may be public confusion. That’s because officials with the group haven’t been afraid to use the "Planned Parenthood" brand when choosing names for affiliates that are allowed to engage in election activity.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, some of the group’s biggest affiliated spenders in 2014 were called Planned Parenthood Votes (a Super PAC that spent $4.2 million that cycle) and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (a 501(c)4 group that spent $930,290 that cycle). Another 19 affiliates with "Planned Parenthood" in their name, mostly regional affiliates, had PACs that spent money on political purposes in 2014 or had employees who gave from their own pockets that cycle.
This has the effect of fuzzing the image of what counts as "Planned Parenthood" in the public mind, even if not in legal status.
Another point worth mentioning: Not all of this money was spent on "candidates," the word Fiorina used. Some of the money we totaled above went to candidates, but a lot went to party committees or was used for "independent expenditures," such as ads that independently supported a candidate without going through the candidate’s own campaign treasury.
In the 2014 campaign cycle, the Center for Responsive Politics found that groups and individuals related to Planned Parenthood spent $679,708 specifically on congressional candidates. And if you broaden that out to the entire 1990 to 2016 period, the number rises to about $3.9 million specifically on congressional candidates.
In 2014, the group's biggest recipients among incumbent senators were Ed Markey, D-Mass., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Al Franken, D-Minn., and Mark Udall, D-Colo. The four senators -- each of whom received a 100 percent vote rating from NARAL-Pro-Choice America -- received between $14,000 and $23,000 each.
If you include all recent years, Fiorina’s right that the amount spent specifically on candidates (indeed, just the congressional ones) did reach into the "millions."
It’s worth noting that Planned Parenthood is hardly the only organization to split itself into separate entities that have different abilities to participate in politics. In addition to being legal, it’s common practice.
Indeed, a political affiliate of the Susan B. Anthony List -- an anti-abortion group -- spent $745,756 on independent expenditures in campaigns during the 2014 cycle. And during her unsuccessful 2010 Senate candidacy in California, Fiorina herself benefited from $246,183 in independent expenditures by National Right to Life and $234,774 in independent expenditures from the Susan B. Anthony List.
Fiorina said Planned Parenthood "is an organization that funnels millions of dollars in political contributions to pro-abortion candidates."
Fiorina glossed over the difference between the operational arm of Planned Parenthood, which receives federal funding and cannot take part in electoral activities, and its affiliates, which can legally spend money on politics.
Still, she is right that a variety of affiliates of Planned Parenthood -- usually with "Planned Parenthood" in their name -- have legally spent "millions" on politics in recent years, both for candidates specifically and on other electoral activities.
The statement is accurate but needs clarification, so we rate Fiorina’s claim Mostly True.
Carly Fiorina, interview on Fox News’ Hannity, Sept. 30, 2015
Center for Responsive Politics, Planned Parenthood summary page, accessed Oct. 2, 2015
Center for Responsive Politics, "Center stage in funding debate, Planned Parenthood is no political pushover," Sept. 23, 2015
Planned Parenthood Action Fund Inc Federal PAC, 2014 year end FEC filing, accessed Oct. 2, 2015
Email interview with Will Tucker, money-in-politics reporter with the Center for Responsive Politics, Oct. 2, 2015
Email interview with Katie Hughes, communications director with CARLY for America, Oct. 1, 2015
Email interview with Anna Epstein, spokeswoman for Carly Fiorina, Oct. 1, 2015
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