“Do you think this is not happening?”: Rhetorical laundering and the federal hearings over Planned Parenthood

Calvin R. Coker, University of Louisville

Copyright © Women & Language. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


This essay offers a rhetorical reading of Congressional hearings investigating the Center for Medical Progress’s (CMP’s) videos falsely accusing Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue. Despite the suspect nature of the allegation at the time it was levied, and subsequent investigations rejecting the CMP’s claims, the notion that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal tissue has persisted alongside accelerated antiabortion jurisprudence and vitriolic rhetoric. This acceleration and persistence may be the result of what I term “rhetorical laundering” wherein suspect evidence is justified as worthy of study in a credible public forum, only to have its treatment in that forum insulate the evidence from criticism such that it adopts the weight and character appropriate to federal hearings. By virtue of its treatment by politicians, the evidentiary force of the CMP videos changed from questionable to actionable and facilitated uncompromising antiabortion legislation and jurisprudence suggesting abortion is a social ill. This transfiguration of the videos afforded a fringe antiabortion political imagination, one that envisions those who seek and perform abortions as indices of social rot, urgency that justifies the (violent) removal of abortion providers generally and Planned Parenthood specifically by importing moralizing and dehumanizing language into the broader political culture. The essay concludes with implications of this laundered evidence for both communication studies and public policy.