It has been two years this week since the anti-choice activist David Daleiden and his front group, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), first burst onto the scene to accuse Planned Parenthood affiliates of illegally profiting from fetal tissue donations—or as Daleiden put it, “baby parts.”
The allegations were, and are, absurd. In fact, they are so absurd—and Daleiden’s conduct in editing and releasing the videos is so egregious—that amidst a flurry of lawsuits, a federal court just ordered him in contempt of court and handed him a bill for more than $130,000.
Oh, and the State of California re-filed felony criminal charges against Daleiden in a separate case related to his surreptitiously recording providers and staff without their consent.
The Scandal of the Year
The release of CMP’s videos became the scandal of 2015 among conservatives—one that Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists alike were certain would bring down the reproductive health-care giant.
Daleiden himself could have come right out of central casting for the spectacle that was about to unfold. He introduced himself to the public as a plucky young anti-choice activist fresh on the abortion protest scene. In reality, though, Daleiden had spent 30 months conspiring to infiltrate, under false pretenses, private meetings hosted by the National Abortion Federation (NAF) and abortion providers in order to target and gain their trust. He would take them out to dinner, ply them with alcohol, and ask them manipulative questions, all in the hopes of getting them to say something incriminating that would prove Daleiden’s cockamamie theory. All the while, he was secretly recording these meetings—using microphones he would hide in his lapel jacket or in a bottle of water—and amassing hundreds of hours of footage.
Daleiden may have been relatively new to the abortion protest scene, but he was backed by a veteran anti-choice activist: Troy Newman, president of the radical group Operation Rescue and notorious for suggesting that murdering abortion doctors might be justifiable homicide. Newman claims he has since distanced himself from the project.
Daleiden edited the videos extensively in order to paint a picture that suited his political narrative. In the first round of footage, actors posing as officers of a fake tissue procurement company he created called BioMax Procurement Services appear to be haggling with top Planned Parenthood officials regarding the cost of purchasing fetal tissue.
There’s nothing illegal about fetal tissue donation programs. Collecting, preserving, and processing fetal tissue costs money. The law permits recouping reasonable costs associated with its transport, processing, preservation, quality control, and storage. And nothing in the first video, or those that followed, demonstrated that Planned Parenthood was doing otherwise.
But because they were heavily edited to make it look like Planned Parenthood officials have been using the profits from their black market fetal tissue dealings to buy Lamborghinis and drink expensive wine—and because the intended audience of the videos was already primed to believe in the most preposterous of tall tales—the videos immediately went viral.
Daleiden’s claims were outrageous, but it didn’t matter. To staunch anti-choice people, Daleiden’s claims and videos supported what they had always believed: that Planned Parenthood is the seat of evil and a catalyst for the downfall of conservative Christian patriarchy.
First Comes Investigations, Then Come Lawsuits
The release of the attack videos sparked a flurry of activity against Planned Parenthood. More than a dozen Republican governors launched investigations into Planned Parenthood. Congressional Republicans held at least five hearings on the matter, including a Benghazi-like select panel led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). None of these investigations found Planned Parenthood guilty of any wrongdoing; Blackburn’s panel was unceremoniously disbanded in January of this year after an extensive 15-month search that cost taxpayers $1.59 million and that uncovered bupkis.
Meanwhile, weeks after Daleiden released the first video—which would ultimately turn into hundreds of hours of uploaded footage on YouTube, NAF filed a lawsuit in federal court in California against CMP and David Daleiden alleging a conspiracy to defraud NAF, perpetrated to intimidate and harass abortion care providers.
Days after filing its lawsuit, NAF won a temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking CMP from releasing any more of the footage Daleiden had secretly recorded at NAF events. Seven months later, NAF secured a preliminary injunction, ensuring that Daleiden would be blocked from releasing any more confidential material while the trial progresses.
Daleiden, of course, cried foul. He also completely ignored the federal court’s order.
He insisted that his First Amendment rights were under attack and that Judge William Orrick’s order prohibiting Daleiden from releasing further footage amounted to prior restraint. (“Prior restraint” is legalese for pre-publication censorship.)
Daleiden also insisted that he was an investigative journalist and argued that his efforts to uncover Planned Parenthood’s misdeed excused his tactics—creating a fake tissue procurement company, assuming false identities through the use of faux identification cards, appearing to give people alcohol in order to elicit damaging statements from them, and signing confidentiality agreements with no intention of following them.
Judge Orrick didn’t buy any of Daleiden’s arguments and made it clear in his latest order that if Daleiden continues to ignore the court, he will face criminal contempt proceedings.
That would mean Daleiden could face two different sets of criminal charges. In addition to the civil claims Daleiden and his cronies face from NAF, both Daleiden and his associate Sandra Merritt, who infiltrated NAF’s meetings with him and secretly recorded footage, also have pending criminal cases against them. State prosecutors in California indicted the pair on 14 counts of unlawfully recording people without their consent and one count of conspiracy to invade privacy. While a superior court judge recently dismissed those charges—because they weren’t specific enough—State Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office refiled them in late June. Daleiden’s attorneys say they will try to get those charges dismissed as well, and they may well be successful, but it’s hard not to imagine Daleiden’s frustration.
The Damage Was Done
Despite Daleiden’s personal setbacks, the videos accomplished at least one of his goals: Keep Planned Parenthood a target of the radical anti-choice movement.
It’s clear that Daleiden’s smear campaign wasn’t all that he had hoped it would be. Planned Parenthood remains popular among patients, donors, and the public. Neither Daleiden nor CMP have provided credible evidence that Planned Parenthood did anything wrong, and not a single investigation at either the state or federal level has produced evidence of wrongdoing.
That said, it would be disingenuous to argue that Daleiden’s plan was a gross failure. Although his allegations have not been proven, they have provided ammunition for anti-choice activists and politicians who have been dead-set on stripping Planned Parenthood of its funding for years. Although Senate Republicans’ latest attempt to reform health care is dead, its most recent bill stripped Planned Parenthood of its funding for one year; it is highly likely future bills will too. Congressional conservatives remain laser-focused on ending legal abortion altogether, so there’s plenty of reason to think they will continue those efforts—both because they believe in the cause and because someone has to try to distract attention away from the walking constitutional abomination that is President Donald Trump.
Certainly the abortion providers whom Daleiden smeared in his videos have suffered grave consequences, as have abortion providers generally: The violence against providers and clinics increased dramatically in the wake of Daleiden’s antics. And because of the videos and ensuing harassment of abortion providers, Planned Parenthood decided to stop taking reimbursements for the cost of its fetal tissue donation program, even though no one had found it had done anything wrong.
So ultimately, what was the point of this project? To inflame those who already hate Planned Parenthood? To rile up gullible people who think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Planned Parenthood is murdering babies for parts? If so, mission accomplished. But surely Daleiden had bigger hopes for this project.
As Daleiden’s court cases continue, several lingering questions remain. Among them: Who funded Daleiden’s project? That’s a question that NAF asked in the initial stages of its litigation battle against CMP and it is a question that has yet to be publicly answered.
Who in Congress knew of the videos before they were released and why did they sit on them? Rep. Blackburn has yet to answer this question.
To what degree did and does radical anti-choice activist Troy Newman remain involved in Daleiden’s campaign and the Center for Medical Progress? Newman claims he was involved only initially with the corporate setup, but there has yet to be definitive proof in any of the court filings that Newman’s claims are true. Given that Newman endorsed Trump before the election and has allies among the administration, his connection to Daleiden’s efforts matters.
Furthermore, Operation Save America (OSA), a radical anti-choice splinter group founded by one of Newman’s former colleagues, has already promised a return to the days of clinic sieges, flatly ignoring the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. OSA will meet in Louisville, Kentucky, next week in its annual meeting to coordinate this new wave of clinic attacks. Kentucky is one of only seven states with just one abortion clinic left. OSA will target the six other states as well.
The anti-choice movement has a true friend in the Trump administration. And two years after the release of his first tape, it certainly looks like the veterans in the anti-choice wing of the conservative movement helped a plucky young guy named David Daleiden do their dirty work for them.