Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton finally stepped up Thursday to defend Planned Parenthood against the outcry over hidden-camera video of the organization’s executives selling fetal organs, calling it an “attack on a woman’s right to choose.”
The forceful defense broke two weeks of silence from Mrs. Clinton, a longtime ally of the group, since the first video was posted online showing a top Planned Parenthood executive trading in unborn body parts.
“I think it is unfortunate that Planned Parenthood has been the object of such a concerted attack for so many years and it’s really an attack against a woman’s right to choose,” Mrs. Clinton said when asked about the controversy at a town hall-style meeting in Greenville, South Carolina.
Mrs. Clinton, who this year was awarded Planned Parenthoods’ top honor, the PPFA Margaret Sanger Award, said abortion was “the most personal, difficult decision that any woman would face based on her faith and the medical advice that she is given.”
Mrs. Clinton had refused to answer questions about the two videos, which were shot by an anti-abortion activist in an elaborate sting operation, until asked by an audience member at the campaign event at Greenville Technical College.
The former first lady, senator and secretary of state said that she hoped the questions swirling around Planned Parenthood would not undermine the important health care services it provides to women.
“For more than a century Planned Parenthood has provided essential services for women, not just reproductive health services, including access to affordable family planning, but cancer screenings, for example, and other health checkups,” said Mrs. Clinton, who also has made women’s issue a focus of her campaign.
Her embrace of Planned Parenthood was in keeping with a long record of supporting the organizing and abortion rights. Still, Mrs. Clinton’s unflinching allegiance to the group could become a liability on the campaign trail with the activists who shot the videos promising more is to come and Congress opening investigations of Planned Parenthood’s activities.
Republican presidential candidates and GOP lawmakers have called for cutting nearly $500 million in taxpayer funds that go each year to Planned Parenthood.
“I don’t have all the facts but Planned Parenthood has apologized for the insensitivity of the employee that was taped and they will continue to answer questions for Congress and others,” said Mrs. Clinton.
She later added: “Planned Parenthood still remains a very important part of the whole healthcare delivery system, particularly, but not exclusively, for poor women. And I just strongly believe that we need to make sure that it can continue to do that into the future.”
Mrs. Clinton trumpeted measures that she said would empower women by breaking down barriers to higher wages, including equal pay laws, mandatory paid sick leave and affordable child care.
At an early campaign stop in West Columbia, South Carolina, she said that she viewed her quest to the first female president of the United States as an honor and a responsibility.
“Clearly, I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman. I’m asking people to vote for me on the merits,” she said. “I think one of the merits is I am a woman. And I can bring those views and perspectives to the White House.”
Mrs. Clinton also took on the issues of racism and justice, saying that Americans must “dig deeper” to root out systemic racism that helps keep too many black families in poverty and sends too many black men to prison.
“Anybody who says we don’t have to make any more progress is blind to what we need to do to deal with race and justice questions,” she said. “I think we first have to acknowledge and believe that black lives matter. It’s not just a slogan.”
Mrs. Clinton’s defense of Planned Parenthood came as other top Democrats begin circling the wagons.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined several Democrats Thursday in calling for a federal investigation into the Center for Medical Progress, the nonprofit anti-abortion group responsible for the videos.
“Let’s have an investigation of those people who were trying to ensnare Planned Parenthood in a controversy that doesn’t exist,” said Mrs. Pelosi.
“Planned Parenthood has said that they have done nothing illegal,” she added. “They do not ever charge, which would be illegal, for fetal tissue. They have only defrayed the cost of mailing that to someone, which is not breaking the law.”
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the Democratic lawmakers demanded an investigation of whether the Center for Medical Progress broke California’s two-party consent law by secretly recording private conversations.
Mrs. Lynch has said hat she would review “all information” available before deciding to launch a full investigation.
Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, has insisted the organization does nothing illegal and does not profit form the sale of fetal organs for scientific research.
Commercial sale of human fetal tissue is illegal under federal law. Noncommercial tissue donation is allowed if the woman undergoing an abortion gives her consent, and Planned Parenthood can collect payments to cover the cost of harvesting the specimens.
However, Ms. Richards apologized for the “tone and statements” of a top Planned Parenthood official shown in the first video discussing in ghoulish detail procedures for performing partial-birth abortions, including crushing heads and leaving bodies intact to preserve organs for sale.
A second video released this week by the non-profit anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress showed another Planned Parenthood executive haggling over the price for fetal specimens.
⦁ Jessica Chasmar contributed to this report.