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Carson draws laughs, gasps in N.H.

Dr. Ben Carson spoke at a retirement center in Exeter, N.H., on Wednesday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

EXETER, N.H. — Ben Carson drew the ire of some retirement community members Wednesday afternoon after he called Planned Parenthood a “disgraced” organization.

Several people shouted “come on!” and a few people walked out when a resident asked Carson — a GOP presidential candidate — whether babies feel pain as they are being “pulled apart from limb by limb.” Carson, a retired doctor whose specialty was pediatric neurosurgery, did not answer directly, but said: “It’s really hard to say that’s not a human being.”

Later, after an otherwise uncontentious event, the 63-year-old Detroit native was asked by reporters whether Planned Parenthood had violated any medical ethics. The organization is currently at the center of a major political battle on Capitol Hill over its fetal tissue pratices.


“Tearing babies apart? Is that what you mean?” he said. “The medical ethics of selling body parts and manipulating babies in order to preserve certain body parts? It’s illegal.”

Carson has surged in recent weeks to take the No. 2 spot, according to polls, in a field crammed with 15 Republican White House hopefuls. Much like GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who also campaigned in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Carson has been buoyed by his outsider, anti-establishment status with a resume that includes his tenure as director of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University but no elected offices. Carson’s campaign also announced Wednesday that it has raised more than $31 million so far, more than $20 million of which came in the past three months.

Before the outburst at Wednesday’s afternoon event at RiverWoods, resident Sally Lavery mused at how many people and television cameras were in attendance. The community has hosted one other presidential contender so far — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — but staff say they have invited every candidate.

“I’ve never seen this many people here,” Lavery said looking at the more than 200 people packed into the chairs and standing along the walls.


Carson gave a 30-minute speech in which he spoke about foreign affairs and the national debt, saying the time had come for Americans to sacrifice in order to eliminate the fiscal gap. He decried political correctness, saying “it’s destroying our nation.” He likened it to the group-think of Germany under Nazi rule.

“People didn’t believe in what Hitler was doing, but did they speak up? No, and look at what happened,” he said. “People say nothing like that can happen in America. I beg to differ.”

Carson also described his roots in Boston, where his family moved after his parents divorced. They lived with his mother’s older sister and her husband in a “typical tenement, large, multifamily dwelling. Boarded up windows and doors. Sirens. Gangs. Murders. Both my older cousins were killed,” he said of his two years in Boston.

His family eventually returned to his home of Detroit, where he said his mother refused to accept public assistance and required regular book reports, even though she couldn’t read them.

“As far as we were concerned that was child abuse,” he said.

His candor drew laughs from the audience at times until the final two questions, which were about Planned Parenthood.

Antiabortion leaders have argued Planned Parenthood illegally profited from fetal tissue sales since the release of several surreptitiously recorded videos with some of the organization’s heads (Planned Parenthood says they have not done anything illegal or profited from fetal tissue donations.) Carson took heat this summer when it was revealed he participated in a 1992 medical research study that used tissue from aborted fetuses — but this did not come up during his visit.


Instead came the first of the day’s controversial questions: “Can you tell us what the truth is behind Planned Parenthood. Is it really necessary to be funded by government? And are they doing a really good job?”

Carson responded by saying that Margaret Sanger, the founder of the women’s health organization, “was a eugenicist. She believed that people like me should be eliminated or kept under control. So, I’m not real fond of her to be honest or anything that she established.”

There were groans in response from the audience. (Carson clarified later when asked by reporters to explain whom Sanger wanted to eradicate, saying “I’m talking about the black race.”)

But it was the last question — and Carson’s response — that caused Sylvia Kennedy, a retired emergency room physician, to storm out. The question was about abortion and fetal pain.

His started his response by talking about the advances in medical care that allow doctors to see a baby in utero, saying: “It’s really hard to say that that’s not a human being. If it’s a meaningless mass of tissue then why were people willing to pay money for its liver, or its heart or its brain?”

Kennedy couldn’t listen anymore.


“They want to deny women access to preventative health care,” she fumed in the hallway. “In the ’50s there were married woman who couldn’t get contraceptives. We’re going backwards.”

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson
. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.