Catholic Democrats & the Group Behind the Anti-Planned Parenthood Videos

About Frederick Clarkson

Anti-abortion Catholic Democrats have long sought to cast their cause as progressive, but their actions have taken them into common cause with the Religious Right.  This tendency has been on display during the brouhaha over the publication of the first of what promises to be a series of misleading propaganda videos published by an obscure antiabortion group.

The Center for Medical Progress (a Catholic Right group with no relation to the liberal Washington DC think tank, Center for American Progress) has made news for its tabloid claim that Planned Parenthood Federation of America engages in the potentially criminal harvesting of fetal tissue and organs for profit. But the documentation does not substantiate the charges.  In fact, the unedited version of the covertly recorded video and the transcript supports PPFA’s statements that they only engage in the lawful practice of—and with the woman’s consent—donating fetal tissue for medical and research purposes.

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG).

Epitomizing the tendency of anti-choice Democrats to become entangled with religious and political elements who are neither progressive or Democratic, is Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) – whose devotion to the cause has been clear since its founding in 2004.

Two days after the release of the first video, Christopher J. Hale (executive director of CACG) published a provocative op-ed in the religion section of The Washington Post online.  He called for progressive and Democratic leaders to join him in denouncing Planned Parenthood, citing the Center for Medical Progress’s crude work of propaganda as the justification for his call to moral action.

“Who will say no,” Hale asked, framing his accusation in the form of a question, “to this growing indifference towards others’ invisible sufferings, toward unseen violence, and toward hidden injustices that has metastasized in our national conscience? Who will speak truth to the rich and powerful and denounce Planned Parenthood’s participation and leadership in this throwaway culture and an economy that debases, excludes, and kills?”

Juxtapose Hale’s accusations with journalists like Robin Abcarian at the Los Angeles Times and Robin Marty at Cosmopolitan, who quickly saw that the video does not support the charges. So did the editorial board of The New York Times, which concluded that “the video campaign is a dishonest attempt to make legal, voluntary and potentially lifesaving tissue donations appear nefarious and illegal.”

It did not take long for Hale’s piece to be seen as an outrageous rush to judgement. Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, writing at The Huffington Post, observed that Hale did not let the facts get in the way of the story he wanted to tell. CACG, said O’Brien, “is so hell-bent on making abortion illegal that they went so far as to equate a woman’s abortion decision with torture and war.”

Nevertheless, Hale is often cited in major media as a representative of liberal Christianity, and is a regular contributor to Time magazine.

Who Is Center for Medical Progress?

If Hale and other anti-abortion Democrats had bothered to look, they would have learned that the Center for Medical Progress has only existed since 2013, and has no record of doing much of anything prior to their release of the propaganda video which prompted Hale’s op-ed.  Hale would also have found out that one of the three founders is Troy Newman, longtime president of the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue (see PRA’s profile here).  What’s more, Robin Marty reported that the tactic of making sensationalized, highly edited undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood was popularized by Live Action, founded and led by Lila Rose (see PRA’s profile here), and that Daleiden had worked for her.  “David Daleiden” Marty wrote of Center for Medical Progress’s founder, “is the former director of research for Live Action, and according to Breitbart News, he held that position for five years and ‘is no stranger to undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood.’”

Rose, who says her work is driven by her faith, was catechized by the secretive, conservative order Opus Dei while she was in college. She is a popular speaker at Christian Right events, such as the annual Values Voters political conference hosted by the Family Research Council. Rose claimed that the Daleiden video reveals “the unimaginable horror that is Planned Parenthood” including the “exploitation of human life, the cover-up, and the black market profiteering by America’s largest abortion chain” as well as “their contempt for rule of law and human life.”

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good itself has a curious recent history.  The organization lost its federal tax-exempt status several years ago, and all of its prominent supporters inexplicably disappeared from its web site last year.  It is unclear where its money currently comes from, but CACG now appears to be an unincorporated project of a Washington, DC political PR firm, Matz, Blancato & Associates  – with which it shares a mailing address, and where longtime CACG board member and current chairman Alfred Rotondaro has worked in recent years.  (Blancato also chairs the Italian American Democratic Council, a political action committee of which Rotondaro is treasurer.)  Rotondaro, who has also been a Senior Fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, is no longer listed on the organization’s web site.  (The Center for American Progress’s publication Think Progress has, however, posted a detailed exposé of what’s wrong with the Daleiden videos and links it to similar video smear products intended to damage Planned Parenthood.) 

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates the legal and ethical standards regarding donation of tissue and organs for purposes of medical and scientific research. The full transcript of the video, which was released by CMP, shows PPFA’s Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola explaining how patients are not coerced but are informed about the option of donating tissue, and also making it very clear that there is no profit motive.

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates legal and ethical standards.

Subsequent statements issued by PPFA are consistent with what Nucatola told her undercover interviewers. PPFA states, “[W]e do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does – with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.  There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.  In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.”

Indeed, the charges being exploited by anti-abortion groups and opportunistic politicians are based exclusively on a method of employing terms like “selling,” “trafficking,” “haggling,”  “profiteering,” and “black market” to make inflammatory charges that are not supported by the facts.  

Recent reporting suggests that the videos may have been released in collusion with Republican Members of Congress—at least two of whom had seen the first video weeks before its release—and who say they will  initiate an investigation into the allegations.

It was one thing for the ostensibly liberal and Democratic Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to advocate for their views. But there has always been more to it. “To the untrained eye,” Catholics for Choice explained in a 2009 report on the group, “CACG may just seem like another Catholic social justice organization, focusing solely on traditional Catholic social teaching such as care of the poor, environmental sustainability and economic justice. However, a closer look reveals that a key aim of CACG is to oppose the availability of legal abortion.”

But beyond even this, it is quite another thing for CACG executive director Christopher J. Hale to treat as fact a work of crude political propaganda from a sketchy organization, alleging potentially criminal activity on the part of a respected health care provider – and then to call on Democratic and progressive leaders to  join him in this recklessness.  Hale and others of his ilk may actually believe this video smear job, or, worse, may be willing to employ the lies of a militant, right-wing agency to accomplish their ends – no matter who among their supposed allies may be harmed.

Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, has written about politics and religion for more than three decades. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.