Commentary Media

‘Obvious Child’ Changes the Rom-Com Game

Sarah Seltzer

Obvious Child's treatment of abortion as an important moment in both the development of the main character and her romantic relationship is just one of the beautiful ways the film—a raunchy joke-fest with an undeniably humanistic heart—deals with women’s choices and power.

During one of several pivotal scenes in Obvious Child, the new indie romantic comedy written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, Donna (played by Jenny Slate) lies on the clinic exam table, under sedation, waiting for her abortion. Choosing the abortion itself has never been a question for Donna, but although her arrival here on the table was inevitable, to the audience it still feels like a turning point.

When Obvious Child came out as a short in 2009, I wrote a quick piece about it for Rewire, declaring it “the abortion rom-com we’ve been waiting for,” as evidenced by much love for the short film from around the burgeoning feminist blogosphere. It was this online love that inspired Robespierre and Slate to turn the film into a feature, to all our benefits.

Obvious Child‘s treatment of abortion as an important moment in both the development of the main character and her romantic relationship is just one of the beautiful ways the film—a raunchy joke-fest with an undeniably humanistic heart—deals with women’s choices and power. Obvious Child is an “abortion rom-com” the same way that Knocked Up, Juno, and Waitress are pregnancy rom-coms. An unplanned pregnancy is a plot catalyst, and the abortion, rather than a birth, is the denouement that brings all the characters together in a satisfying way. But it’s not a film about abortion. Instead, it’s a film that, as Slate has noted in several interviews, shows the process of a woman with a comically unruly “nature” learning to channel herself in a more positive direction by making smart choices—without in any way changing her essence.

While the abortion procedure occurs—the scene is filmed in an actual Planned Parenthood clinic—the wooziness overtaking Donna is milked for gentle laughter. Slate hams it up, lolling her head around. But a lovely undercurrent of poignancy is created when the lens zooms in to two small tears that slide down the protagonist’s cheeks. Donna’s not crying because she regrets her decision, but because she regrets a lot of things that led her here. Her sadness comes from conventional comedy tropes, broad and universal: a breakup, wherein her boyfriend has cheated on her with a friend, a lost job at a condemned leftist bookstore. But the film really digs around in Donna’s pain and humiliation, making Drew Barrymore or Cameron Diaz’s similar histrionics in a big-budget rom-com (no offense to the talents of either of those actress) feel shallow in comparison. What this lingering, or wallowing, subtly shows is that losing a relationship and a job means a loss of safety, an unmooring. Donna has to become her own safety net, and her abortion facilitates that journey.

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There’s so much more that feels quietly revolutionary in the film, despite its conventional structure. Of course I came close to tears during the scene staged in the clinic afterwards, with Donna sitting among other women in their gowns, all sipping juice, looking straight ahead and then exchanging a hesitant smile. Anyone who has thought or written about the way films portray abortion will be moved, I think, to see such a clinic scene be staged to create a sense of sisterhood rather than shame. But female solidarity is a clear theme of the film, as both the other female characters—Donna’s best friend and her mother—speak of their own abortions as choices they too don’t regret. Her best friend, played by Gaby Hoffman, sighs and says that the only regret she feels is pity for her teenage self.

For a movie called Obvious Child, there’s refreshingly zero talk of the child that might be if Donna carried her pregnancy to term. No one shows up to lecture her about her responsibility to her future family, and during her climactic confessional standup routine, she explains why she’s not ready to be a mom. At a screening of the film I attended earlier this week, Robespierre said of the scolding anti-choice voice, “We’ve already seen that character.” Donna is learning to take responsibility for herself first, making her the child, as most comedy protagonists are.

As for romance, the male lead, a nice boy from Vermont somewhat lost in the concrete woods of New York, is almost too good to be true. If it feels unbelievable at times that he’d be enamored of Donna’s juvenile humor and stick with her even after she pushes him away a few too many times and also be cool with her abortion at the end of the day, actor Jake Lacy’s wide-eyed shtick sells the premise. Besides, it’s not a cardinal sin to have a male lead who’s less developed than the central leading lady, and who finds her as charming as we do. Just ask Jane Austen. Similarly, the film’s lack of diversity would be more frustrating if there weren’t only four or five characters, most of whom are in the same family. Still, I’m way past ready for our new era of wonderfully fallible and frustrating heroines—which now counts Donna among its ranks—to start including even more women of color, too.

In the golden era of the “pregnancy rom-coms” that inspired Obvious Child, directors were prone to justifying why characters in films and TV shows carry pregnancies to term. They’d say that getting an abortion ends a pregnancy plot before it started—if there’s an abortion, nothing happens! But this film shows that excuse to be a cop-out. I always wondered why more filmmakers didn’t use abortion as a plot point after seeing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It seemed so clear then that a character’s abortion isn’t necessarily punishment, but it can easily be used as a teachable moment, ushering her into a new phase of life (and in that film’s case, teaches her a lesson about which kind of men will be there for her and which won’t).

The fact that abortion isn’t just successful as a plot device, but can actually add dimension to female characters—maybe even leaving more room for nuance and exploration than a pregnancy does—shouldn’t be a surprise to those of us who’ve seen it happen on Friday Night Lights, or in Greenberg. This is how abortion so often works in life, after all. It’s not empowering in a rah-rah way. Rather, it’s empowering in the sense that the very act of making a decision about our future, even if in desperation, gives us control. For Donna, making that choice and learning that the women around her, including her mom, who look like they have their lives together, have been in the same rock-bottom boat that she has, enables this obvious child to grow up.

Analysis Abortion

‘Pro-Life’ Pence Transfers Money Intended for Vulnerable Households to Anti-Choice Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Jenn Stanley

Donald Trump's running mate has said that "life is winning in Indiana"—and the biggest winner is probably a chain of crisis pregnancy centers that landed a $3.5 million contract in funds originally intended for poor Hoosiers.

Much has been made of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues. In 2000, when he was running for U.S. representative, Pence wrote that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ [sic] entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” He also said that funds meant to help people living with HIV or AIDS should no longer be given to organizations that provide HIV prevention services because they “celebrate and encourage” homosexual activity. Instead, he proposed redirecting those funds to anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” programs, which have been widely discredited by the medical community as being ineffective and dangerous.

Under Pence, ideology has replaced evidence in many areas of public life. In fact, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has just hired a running mate who, in the past year, has reallocated millions of dollars in public funds intended to provide food and health care for needy families to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence, who declined multiple requests for an interview with Rewire, has been outspoken about his anti-choice agenda. Currently, Indiana law requires people seeking abortions to receive in-person “counseling” and written information from a physician or other health-care provider 18 hours before the abortion begins. And thanks, in part, to other restrictive laws making it more difficult for clinics to operate, there are currently six abortion providers in Indiana, and none in the northern part of the state. Only four of Indiana’s 92 counties have an abortion provider. All this means that many people in need of abortion care are forced to take significant time off work, arrange child care, and possibly pay for a place to stay overnight in order to obtain it.

This environment is why a contract quietly signed by Pence last fall with the crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization Real Alternatives is so potentially dangerous for Indiana residents seeking abortion: State-subsidized crisis pregnancy centers not only don’t provide abortion but seek to persuade people out of seeking abortion, thus limiting their options.

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“Indiana is committed to the health, safety, and wellbeing [sic] of Hoosier families, women, and children,” reads the first line of the contract between the Indiana State Department of Health and Real Alternatives. The contract, which began on October 1, 2015, allocates $3.5 million over the course of a year for Real Alternatives to use to fund crisis pregnancy centers throughout the state.

Where Funding Comes From

The money for the Real Alternatives contract comes from Indiana’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, a federally funded, state-run program meant to support the most vulnerable households with children. The program was created by the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by former President Bill Clinton. It changed welfare from a federal program that gave money directly to needy families to one that gave money, and a lot of flexibility with how to use it, to the states.

This TANF block grant is supposed to provide low-income families a monthly cash stipend that can be used for rent, child care, and food. But states have wide discretion over these funds: In general, they must use the money to serve families with children, but they can also fund programs meant, for example, to promote marriage. They can also make changes to the requirements for fund eligibility.

As of 2012, to be eligible for cash assistance in Indiana, a household’s maximum monthly earnings could not exceed $377, the fourth-lowest level of qualification of all 50 states, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Indiana’s program also has some of the lowest maximum payouts to recipients in the country.

Part of this is due to a 2011 work requirement that stripped eligibility from many families. Under the new work requirement, a parent or caretaker receiving assistance needs to be “engaged in work once the State determines the parent or caretaker is ready to engage in work,” or after 24 months of receiving benefits. The maximum time allowed federally for a family to receive assistance is 60 months.

“There was a TANF policy change effective November 2011 that required an up-front job search to be completed at the point of application before we would proceed in authorizing TANF benefits,” Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), told Rewire. “Most [applicants] did not complete the required job search and thus applications were denied.”

Unspent money from the block grant can be carried over to following years. Indiana receives an annual block grant of $206,799,109, but the state hasn’t been using all of it thanks to those low payouts and strict eligibility requirements. The budget for the Real Alternatives contract comes from these carry-over funds.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF is explicitly meant to clothe and feed children, or to create programs that help prevent “non-marital childbearing,” and Indiana’s contract with Real Alternatives does neither. The contract stipulates that Real Alternatives and its subcontractors must “actively promote childbirth instead of abortion.” The funds, the contract says, cannot be used for organizations that will refer clients to abortion providers or promote contraceptives as a way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Parties involved in the contract defended it to Rewire by saying they provide material goods to expecting and new parents, but Rewire obtained documents that showed a much different reality.

Real Alternatives is an anti-choice organization run by Kevin Bagatta, a Pennsylvania lawyer who has no known professional experience with medical or mental health services. It helps open, finance, and refer clients to crisis pregnancy centers. The program started in Pennsylvania, where it received a $30 million, five-year grant to support a network of 40 subcontracting crisis pregnancy centers. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called for an audit of the organization between June 2012 and June 2015 after hearing reports of mismanaged funds, and found $485,000 in inappropriate billing. According to the audit, Real Alternatives would not permit DHS to review how the organization used those funds. However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April that at least some of the money appears to have been designated for programs outside the state.

Real Alternatives also received an $800,000 contract in Michigan, which inspired Gov. Pence to fund a $1 million yearlong pilot program in northern Indiana in the fall of 2014.

“The widespread success [of the pilot program] and large demand for these services led to the statewide expansion of the program,” reads the current $3.5 million contract. It is unclear what measures the state used to define “success.”

 

“Every Other Baby … Starts With Women’s Care Center”

Real Alternatives has 18 subcontracting centers in Indiana; 15 of them are owned by Women’s Care Center, a chain of crisis pregnancy centers. According to its website, Women’s Care Center serves 25,000 women annually in 23 centers throughout Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Women’s Care Centers in Indiana received 18 percent of their operating budget from state’s Real Alternatives program during the pilot year, October 1, 2014 through September 30, 2015, which were mostly reimbursements for counseling and classes throughout pregnancy, rather than goods and services for new parents.

In fact, instead of the dispensation of diapers and food, “the primary purpose of the [Real Alternatives] program is to provide core services consisting of information, sharing education, and counseling that promotes childbirth and assists pregnant women in their decision regarding adoption or parenting,” the most recent contract reads.

The program’s reimbursement system prioritizes these anti-choice classes and counseling sessions: The more they bill for, the more likely they are to get more funding and thus open more clinics.

“This performance driven [sic] reimbursement system rewards vendor service providers who take their program reimbursement and reinvest in their services by opening more centers and hiring more counselors to serve more women in need,” reads the contract.

Classes, which are billed as chastity classes, parenting classes, pregnancy classes, and childbirth classes, are reimbursed at $21.80 per client. Meanwhile, as per the most recent contract, counseling sessions, which are separate from the classes, are reimbursed by the state at minimum rates of $1.09 per minute.

Jenny Hunsberger, vice president of Women’s Care Center, told Rewire that half of all pregnant women in Elkhart, LaPorte, Marshall, and St. Joseph Counties, and one in four pregnant women in Allen County, are clients of their centers. To receive any material goods, such as diapers, food, and clothing, she said, all clients must receive this counseling, at no cost to them. Such counseling is billed by the minute for reimbursement.

“When every other baby born [in those counties] starts with Women’s Care Center, that’s a lot of minutes,” Hunsberger told Rewire.

Rewire was unable to verify exactly what is said in those counseling sessions, except that they are meant to encourage clients to carry their pregnancies to term and to help them decide between adoption or child rearing, according to Hunsberger. As mandated by the contract, both counseling and classes must “provide abstinence education as the best and only method of avoiding unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.”

In the first quarter of the new contract alone, Women’s Care Center billed Real Alternatives and, in turn, the state, $239,290.97; about $150,000 of that was for counseling, according to documents obtained by Rewire. In contrast, goods like food, diapers, and other essentials for new parents made up only about 18.5 percent of Women’s Care Center’s first-quarter reimbursements.

Despite the fact that the state is paying for counseling at Women’s Care Center, Rewire was unable to find any licensing for counselors affiliated with the centers. Hunsberger told Rewire that counseling assistants and counselors complete a minimum training of 200 hours overseen by a master’s level counselor, but the counselors and assistants do not all have social work or psychology degrees. Hunsberger wrote in an email to Rewire that “a typical Women’s Care Center is staffed with one or more highly skilled counselors, MSW or equivalent.”

Rewire followed up for more information regarding what “typical” or “equivalent” meant, but Hunsberger declined to answer. A search for licenses for the known counselors at Women’s Care Center’s Indiana locations turned up nothing. The Indiana State Department of Health told Rewire that it does not monitor or regulate the staff at Real Alternatives’ subcontractors, and both Women’s Care Center and Real Alternatives were uncooperative when asked for more information regarding their counseling staff and training.

Bethany Christian Services and Heartline Pregnancy Center, Real Alternatives’ other Indiana subcontractors, billed the program $380.41 and $404.39 respectively in the first quarter. They billed only for counseling sessions, and not goods or classes.

In a 2011 interview with Philadelphia City Paper, Kevin Bagatta said that Real Alternatives counselors were not required to have a degree.

“We don’t provide medical services. We provide human services,” Bagatta told the City Paper.

There are pregnancy centers in Indiana that provide a full range of referrals for reproductive health care, including for STI testing and abortion. However, they are not eligible for reimbursement under the Real Alternatives contract because they do not maintain an anti-choice mission.

Parker Dockray is the executive director of Backline, an all-options pregnancy resource center. She told Rewire that Backline serves hundreds of Indiana residents each month, and is overwhelmed by demand for diapers and other goods, but it is ineligible for the funding because it will refer women to abortion providers if they choose not to carry a pregnancy to term.

“At a time when so many Hoosier families are struggling to make ends meet, it is irresponsible for the state to divert funds intended to support low-income women and children and give it to organizations that provide biased pregnancy counseling,” Dockray told Rewire. “We wish that Indiana would use this funding to truly support families by providing job training, child care, and other safety net services, rather than using it to promote an anti-abortion agenda.”

“Life Is Winning in Indiana”

Time and again, Bagatta and Hunsberger stressed to Rewire that their organizations do not employ deceitful tactics to get women in the door and to convince them not to have abortions. However, multiple studies have proven that crisis pregnancy centers often lie to women from the moment they search online for an abortion provider through the end of their appointments inside the center.

These studies have also shown that publicly funded crisis pregnancy centers dispense medically inaccurate information to clients. In addition to spreading lies like abortion causing infertility or breast cancer, they are known to give false hopes of miscarriages to people who are pregnant and don’t want to be. A 2015 report by NARAL Pro-Choice America found this practice to be ubiquitous in centers throughout the United States, and Rewire found that Women’s Care Center is no exception. The organization’s website says that as many as 40 percent of pregnancies end in natural miscarriage. While early pregnancy loss is common, it occurs in about 10 percent of known pregnancies, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Crisis pregnancy centers also tend to crop up next to abortion clinics with flashy, deceitful signs that lead many to mistakenly walk into the wrong building. Once inside, clients are encouraged not to have an abortion.

A Google search for “abortion” and “Indianapolis” turns up an ad for the Women’s Care Center as the first result. It reads: “Abortion – Indianapolis – Free Ultrasound before Abortion. Located on 86th and Georgetown. We’re Here to Help – Call Us Today: Abortion, Ultrasound, Locations, Pregnancy.”

Hunsberger denies any deceit on the part of Women’s Care Center.

“Clients who walk in the wrong door are informed that we are not the abortion clinic and that we do not provide abortions,” Hunsberger told Rewire. “Often a woman will choose to stay or return because we provide services that she feels will help her make the best decision for her, including free medical-grade pregnancy tests and ultrasounds which help determine viability and gestational age.”

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky told Rewire that since Women’s Care Center opened on 86th and Georgetown in Indianapolis, many patients looking for its Georgetown Health Center have walked through the “wrong door.”

“We have had patients miss appointments because they went into their building and were kept there so long they missed their scheduled time,” Judi Morrison, vice president of marketing and education, told Rewire.

Sarah Bardol, director of Women’s Care Center’s Indianapolis clinic, told the Criterion Online Edition, a publication of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, that the first day the center was open, a woman and her boyfriend did walk into the “wrong door” hoping to have an abortion.

“The staff of the new Women’s Care Center in Indianapolis, located just yards from the largest abortion provider in the state, hopes for many such ‘wrong-door’ incidents as they seek to help women choose life for their unborn babies,” reported the Criterion Online Edition.

If they submit to counseling, Hoosiers who walk into the “wrong door” and “choose life” can receive up to about $40 in goods over the course their pregnancy and the first year of that child’s life. Perhaps several years ago they may have been eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but now with the work requirement, they may not qualify.

In a February 2016 interview with National Right to Life, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-choice groups, Gov. Pence said, “Life is winning in Indiana.” Though Pence was referring to the Real Alternatives contract, and the wave of anti-choice legislation sweeping through the state, it’s not clear what “life is winning” actually means. The state’s opioid epidemic claimed 1,172 lives in 2014, a statistically significant increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV infections have spread dramatically throughout the state, in part because of Pence’s unwillingness to support medically sound prevention practices. Indiana’s infant mortality rate is above the national average, and infant mortality among Black babies is even higher. And Pence has reduced access to prevention services such as those offered by Planned Parenthood through budget cuts and unnecessary regulations—while increasing spending on anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence’s track record shows that these policies are no mistake. The medical and financial needs of his most vulnerable constituents have taken a backseat to religious ideology throughout his time in office. He has literally reallocated money for poor Hoosiers to fund anti-choice organizations. In his tenure as both a congressman and a governor, he’s proven that whether on a national or state level, he’s willing to put “pro-life” over quality-of-life for his constituents.

Investigations Media

Exclusive: Law Enforcement Calls Daleiden ‘Uncooperative’; Documents Reveal More CMP Lies

Sharona Coutts

“David Daleiden contacted our agency May 21st of 2015 and filed a criminal report against StemExpress here in Placerville,” a spokesperson at the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office told Rewire. “All he was, was a reporting party. He didn’t consult with us and he didn’t cooperate with us. In fact, I’d characterize him as uncooperative.”

See more of our coverage on the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress here.

In late May of last year, David Daleiden was reaching the culmination of a project he had been working on for three years. Over that time, the anti-choice activist had been living a lie of his own creation. He had set up a bogus company, complete with a fake website, and corporate officers whose names were in fact aliases.

He had enlisted half a dozen other anti-choice activists to help him, most notably Sandra Susan Merritt, a 63-year-old resident of San Jose, California, who—using the alias Susan Tennenbaum—posed as the CEO of the bogus company, Biomax Procurement Services.

Together, Daleiden—going by Robert Daoud Sarkis—and Merritt hopscotched the country, traveling from California to Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Texas, and Washington, D.C. They attended conferences for abortion providers and parlayed those attendances—and the trust and credibility they engendered—into visits to abortion clinics, where the pair secretly recorded meetings and site visits and tried to goad their targets into making statements that could be twisted to look like evidence of illegal activities.

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By May 21, Daleiden was nearly ready to bring his elaborate scheme to a head. The next night, he and “Tennenbaum” were scheduled to have dinner with executives from StemExpress, a tissue procurement company based in Northern California. As he had done for virtually every encounter as a Biomax official, Daleiden planned to secretly video record the meeting and then to release doctored versions of that footage to the public.

But this time, Daleiden did something different. On the eve of this particular meeting, he delivered a bundle of so-called evidence of alleged wrongdoing by StemExpress to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, claiming that the company had engaged in a range of crimes including trafficking in human organs and human tissues, and “homicide of babies born alive during the abortion procedure,” according to legal documents obtained by Rewire.

In a deposition taken late last year, Daleiden would claim—in sworn testimony, under penalty of perjury—that the purpose of his meeting with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was “to coordinate [his] investigations going forward on how to bring StemExpress criminal conduct to light.”

Following his lawyer’s advice during that deposition, Daleiden refused to say more about that meeting, or the other authorities he had supposedly “coordinated” with in his spying campaign, but he did heavily imply that the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was just one of the “governmental authorities” that he met with “contemporaneously with the actual undercover operation.”

The notion that law enforcement authorities were actively colluding with Daleiden and his associates in conduct that has resulted in criminal indictments is curious, to say the least.

It’s just one of the loose ends that surrounds Daleiden’s project, a year after he released the first smear video against Planned Parenthood (the organization and some of its individual employees), abortion providers in general, and companies that assist in the procurement of tissue for medical and scientific research. 

Despite the dozen-odd state and federal investigations his project sparked, the multiple civil and criminal cases it sent ricocheting through state and federal courts, and the untold damage it caused to companies, organizations, and individuals targeted by his group, many questions remain about who funded Daleiden, which politicians supported him, and who else was involved in his operation—including the identities of the other operatives that posed as Biomax employees. 

Using freshly obtained legal documents, Rewire has taken a look back at some of the most mysterious aspects of the Daleiden affair, comparing what we have learned since the videos were first released with what remains unknown or unclear.

What emerge are some disturbing claims that have yet to be fully resolved, not least of which is the extent to which members of Congress were aware of—or involved in—planning or executing Daleiden’s campaign.

El Dorado Sheriff’s Office: Daleiden Was “Uncooperative”

When Daleiden met with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, he handed over a report he had prepared containing his “best kind of summary or list of the different California and federal laws that are implicated in the actions between StemExpress and Planned Parenthood,” along with “a few representative examples of the evidence that CMP gathered that indicates probable cause for violations of those laws,” according to a transcript of the deposition he gave on December 30, 2015.

When Rewire contacted the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office about this anecdote, its spokesperson, Jim Byers, said he clearly remembered Daleiden’s visit, but disputed Daleiden’s characterization that his office was “coordinating” with the spying project.

“David Daleiden contacted our agency May 21st of 2015 and filed a criminal report against StemExpress here in Placerville,” Byers said. “All he was, was a reporting party. He didn’t consult with us and he didn’t cooperate with us. In fact, I’d characterize him as uncooperative.”

Byers said that it was unclear to his colleagues what exactly Daleiden wanted them to do with the information he had provided. Flipping through the report while speaking with Rewire, Byers explained: “It just says that he had been conducting a multiyear investigation and was going to go public with it and wanted to make this report to us, but when we asked him to hold off so we could investigate his claims, he went ahead and went public anyway.”

The reason the sheriff’s office asked Daleiden not to go public was because doing so would hamper any investigation they might do into the allegations Daleiden had made. “That’s very common, for us to ask something like that, because then the people we need to talk to aren’t going to talk to us,” Byers said. “He declined to follow our request.”

Regardless, the sheriff’s office spent months investigating Daleiden’s claims; they found no evidence of illegal conduct by StemExpress. As is routine, the sheriff’s office then referred the matter to the El Dorado District Attorney for further review. Dave Stevenson, the spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, told Rewire he was unable to comment on the matter as the investigation is ongoing.

If it seems odd that Daleiden would make a report to law enforcementbut not give them any time to actually investigate the allegations he’d made and actually jeopardize those investigations—that might be because the act of making the report itself was part of Daleiden’s legal strategy.

Daleiden was consulting with the Life Legal Defense Foundation for at least two years prior to releasing his videos, according to published reports. It’s therefore likely that he knew that California creates criminal and civil penalties for people who intentionally make a secret recording of a person in a private meeting without their consent. And indeed, that’s one of the key charges within the lawsuits that have been filed against Daleiden and his co-defendants.

It’s also likely that Daleiden and his advisers knew that there is an exception to that law for people who make a secret recording “for the purpose of obtaining evidence reasonably believed to relate to the commission by another party to the communication of the crime of extortion, kidnapping, bribery, any felony involving violence against the person.”

Throughout the deposition he made on December 30, Daleiden maintained that he believed he was exposing criminal conduct as a justification for his spying activities. Merritt made similar claims in the deposition she gave in the same case, on December 29. In particular, both insist they believed they were recording evidence of murder.

It appears plausible that Daleiden made his report not because he thought the county sheriff’s office would really investigate, but because he anticipated that once he published the illegally taped videos, he would be charged with a crime, and he was simply laying the groundwork to be able to show a court later on that he had filed the criminal report as evidence of his belief that he had uncovered a crime.

Daleiden did not reply to Rewire‘s questions about whether this was in fact his legal strategy. Catherine Short, his lawyer at Life Legal Defense Foundation, did not immediately respond to our emails seeking comment. 

However, for that defense to work, a person must show they had an honest and reasonable belief that they were uncovering a crime. And when it came to the specifics of the supposed crimes they were uncovering, both depositions are striking for the extent to which Daleiden and Merritt refused or were unable to give clear definitions of those offenses.

For instance, both Daleiden and Merritt were reluctant to answer questions about who, if anyone, they believed had actually committed the murder they were supposedly reporting, despite that being one of their key allegations. Both Daleiden and Merritt made vague statements about “doctors” being responsible, or about the “abortion industry” writ large, but when it came to the specifics of how anyone at StemExpress could have been guilty of murder, their answers were evasive. 

In one chilling passage, Daleiden gave stammering and elusive answers to questioning over whether he believed that one of the people who assisted him in his smear campaign—a former StemExpress employee named Holly O’Donnell—had provided him with evidence that she had herself committed murder. Discussing O’Donnell’s account of one incident she related where she claimed to have procured fetal brain tissue, Daleiden initially said he did not believe O’Donnell had murdered that fetus. But under questioning about the overall processes involved in preparing tissue samples, Daleiden’s answers became confused.

After Daleiden noted that O’Donnell went with him to his first meeting with El Dorado law enforcement, the StemExpress lawyer asked: “Did you ever tell Holly that you thought she should be investigated by El Dorado County for her conduct?”

Daleiden never definitely said “no,” but rather, “I think that, you know, the testimony of people who worked at StemExpress is—you know, is relevant to that investigation but I think the ultimate culpability is with the—with the business entity.” He also said he would “put culpability on the doc,” but then he said:

I’m not sure what Holly’s obligations were there. But, you know, but this is—this is highly speculative and, like I said, this is why I think this is really serious information that I—and really serious allegations and actions that—that needed to be brought to law enforcement, which is what I did.

Ultimately, Daleiden’s lawyer summarized his client’s position on O’Donnell’s potential guilt thus: “He explained as best he could that it would be the doctor or it would be [a different StemExpress employee] and it’s ambiguous as to Holly’s role at that point.”

Merritt appears to go further. Towards the end of her deposition, she was asked to clarify whether she believed that any StemExpress employees had committed murder. She described what she believed O’Donnell had done, and then said, “Yes, I believe that to be murder.”

One can only wonder whether O’Donnell was aware that Daleiden considered the possibility—or perhaps, had not considered the possibility—that he was giving law enforcement authorities evidence that she had committed murder, when she accompanied Daleiden to their offices and helped him with his “investigation.”

Rewire’s attempts to contact O’Donnell for her comment on that question were unsuccessful.

Further Evidence That Daleiden and His Associates Are Not Reporters

The very fact that Daleiden claimed—albeit incorrectly—to have been “coordinating” with law enforcement further undermines his dubious assertion that he is an investigative reporter. Reporters would seldom coordinate their efforts with law enforcement, except for rare instances where, by way of example, they might inform law enforcement if they had learned of an imminent risk to a person’s life or to national security.

The deposition also revealed Daleiden’s investigative methods to be far from objective, and in some respects, amateurish.

Under questioning from StemExpress’ attorney, Daleiden explained that much of his knowledge of how tissue or organ transplantation worked was based on “research,” which comprised Googling for journal articles, which he admitted to cherry-picking. He also based most of his understanding of the equipment used in heart transplants on watching videos that the equipment manufacturer had posted on its website and YouTube channel.

He relied disproportionately on the expertise of a scientist whose otherwise impressive credentials are marred by her support for widely debunked theories that vaccines are linked to autism. He used this patchwork knowledge to cobble together flawed theories about how fetal tissue is acquired, and the circumstances in which it could be used for research.

He even made assumptions about what medical professionals meant by the words “case” or “specimen”—he said he believed the people he filmed were referring to a fetus, when in fact those words can also refer to a particular organ or piece of tissue. He said that he didn’t give the subjects of his secret video recordings the opportunity to clarify what they meant by these terms because he didn’t want to blow his cover—or as he put it, he didn’t want to get greedy for information and “get lost in the Cave of Wonders like Aladdin and go like looking for all the other treasures.” He just ran with his own assumptions, something no professional reporter would do. 

And he acknowledged that the reason he embarked on his project was because he had formed an unshakable belief that abortion providers engaged in unlawful trafficking of human organs and tissues, instead of remaining open-minded about the facts and attempting to report against his own biases, as a real reporter would do. None of the multiple investigations into Planned Parenthood have found any evidence that substantiate Daleiden’s allegations. Indeed, Daleiden manipulated his videos to omit passages where the targets of his campaign explicitly told him that profiting from human tissues was unethical and illegal.

Merritt’s deposition is even more astonishing in terms of just how flimsy her claims to be a reporter turn out to be.

Like Daleiden, Merritt is trying to assert that she is a reporter and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

A lawyer for StemExpress asked Merritt, “Do you consider yourself a journalist?”

Merritt answered, “Yes.”

The lawyer then asked, “Have you ever published any articles?”

Merritt answered, “I have not.”

She said she didn’t do any original research. She didn’t do any writing. She didn’t edit. Merritt specifically told the lawyer for StemExpress that her sole role in the ruse orchestrated by Daleiden was to wear a video recorder while playing the part of Susan Tennenbaum, which may explain why Daleiden has frequently referred to his associates as “actors.”

Wearing a camera does not a reporter make.

Which Members of Congress Knew About the Planned Smear Campaign, What Did They Know, and When? 

An especially curious aspect of this saga is how some members of Congress had seen at least one of the smear videos before Daleiden released them to the public. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) both told Roll Call that they had seen the first video about a month before it was published. How and why they came to see the video, and what their role was in helping plan the political response to the tapes, if any, remains unclear.

But the following exchange during Daleiden’s deposition provided a tantalizing tidbit about that mystery.

In his December 30 deposition, Daleiden declined to answer the following questions from StemExpress’ lawyer:

When is the first time you spoke with anybody from, or had any contact with anybody from Congress?

And:

When is the first time you provided any materials to anybody that is a member of Congress?

Daleiden responded: “I don’t think the answer to that question is a matter of public record so I’m going to follow the advice of my counsel.” He declined to respond.

Ostensibly, the reason Daleiden declined is that he believed it was outside the scope of that particular deposition, which was confined to some narrow legal arguments. However, there is an implication in the December 30 deposition that those questions were within the scope of a related case, along with questions about who funded Daleiden’s efforts, and information about the specific role of his board member, the anti-choice extremist and head of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman.

A year has passed since the videos were first released, and a lot of time and taxpayer dollars have been spent as a result of Daleiden’s endeavors. But a year is a short time in the life of a lawsuit, and many cases are still wending their way through state and federal courts. As they do, it is possible that we will learn more about these unresolved questions.

Time will tell whether the pattern Daleiden has established will continue: Instead of exposing wrongdoing by others, the only wrongdoing he has thus far managed to record and expose was his own.