News Violence

Fetal Tissue Workers Sue to Stop David Daleiden From Getting Their Names

Nicole Knight

The plaintiffs' lawyer explained that the researchers, who remain anonymous in the complaint, “are very fearful that they may be subjected to the same type of harassment and violence” that abortion clinic employees have faced.

Employees and scientists with ties to the University of Washington’s Birth Defects Research Laboratory have won a temporary reprieve in federal court barring the release of their personal information to anti-choice activist David Daleiden and his cohorts.

Federal judge James L. Robart granted the restraining order on Wednesday, after the plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit to block the release of a trove of documents requested by Daleiden and a representative from a Washington state anti-choice group. The unredacted records reveal the individuals’ identifying information, such as names, addresses, and phone numbers, according to court documents.

A hearing on a permanent order is expected later this month in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Using the Washington state Public Records Act, Daleiden and Zach Freeman, communications director with the anti-choice Family Policy Institute of Washington, had sought records dating back to 2010 related to work at the Birth Defects Research Laboratory. The research laboratory collects, processes, and distributes fetal tissue for research at academic and nonprofit institutions nationwide, according to court documents. Also ensnared in the sweeping document request were various medical and bioscience institutions, including Seattle Children’s Hospital and Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Daleiden had requested purchase orders, invoices, emails, grant applications, contracts, materials transfer agreements, rent/lease agreements, and other documents, according to an exhibit in court documents.

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Janet Chung, counsel with Seattle-based Legal Voice, who is representing the plaintiffs, said her clients wanted to stop the release of the unredacted records.

Daleiden, a self-proclaimed investigative journalist and head of the California-based anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress, was formerly indicted for his role in a string of discredited “sting” videos falsely accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations.

Reached by phone on Friday, Chung explained that the plaintiffs, who remain anonymous in the complaint, “are very fearful that they may be subjected to the same type of harassment and violence” that abortion clinic employees have faced, particularly after the publication of the CMP videos. Releasing the unredacted records would violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to privacy and free association, according to the complaint.

Chung called Daleiden and Freeman’s records request a “fishing expedition” intended to “harass and intimidate.”

In an emailed statement, Daleiden said he is seeking the “truth” about a “cover-up” at the University of Washington.

When Rewire asked Daleiden whether he objected to redacting identifying information, such as names and addresses, he said in an email that his records request in February did not ask for the “personal contact information of any individuals whatsoever.”

As he explained to Rewire, however, he is seeking the communications of eight individuals whom he considers public figures:

My request only seeks those of 8 public figures…who are very publicly identified with their work at [Birth Defects Research Laboratory] with fetal body parts or with Planned Parenthood’s abortion program in Washington state.

The eight “public figures” that Daleiden names include a retired birth defects researcher, a research director at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a top executive at Planned Parenthood.

Chung, however, told Rewire that Daleiden’s request was so broad that releasing the records would disclose the personal information of more than 150 individuals.

Chung said the plaintiffs resorted to court action because the state public records law doesn’t necessarily require the redaction of personal information, and the University of Washington had warned that it would release the records on August 5.

About two weeks before filing the complaint, Chung said they’d discussed redacting the documents with Daleiden, but he declined. She said they’re continuing to try to resolve the matter with Daleiden’s legal counsel.

In affidavits included with the complaint, plaintiffs claim they’ve been threatened, harassed, and exposed to violence —even murder—due to their ties to fetal tissue research.

As an employee at Seattle Children’s Hospital, identified only as John Doe 1 to protect his privacy and safety, writes:

In one case, Seattle Children’s diagnosed a fetus with a lethal disorder, and because of number of weeks of gestation, the patient had to travel out of state to obtain an abortion. I had interactions with the physician who performed the abortion relating to the autopsy that Children’s Labs performed on the fetus. That physician was later killed by someone with anti-abortion views.

In another affidavit, a professor and research scientist who studies congenital birth defects and is identified as Jane Doe 8, writes:

I fear that having my identity and personal information released to the public would lead to harassment, threats, or violence directed against me or my family.

Protecting the privacy and safety of researchers and employees with ties to fetal tissue science has emerged as an issue of growing concern among scientists as anti-choice groups and Republican lawmakers march on with what some have called a Planned Parenthood “witch hunt.”

In June, the head of the U.S. House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives revealed fetal tissue scientists’ identities in letters sent to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—prompting fears in the medical research community the individuals will be subject to harassment and violence by anti-abortion activists.

As Chung told Rewire, “This is all very much rooted in the concern that the same types of harassment and violence that clinics experience are now being targeted on a wider range of people—all with the goal of chilling important research and medical care.”

The lawsuit is the fourth filed against Daleiden and his anti-choice group following the release of the first wave of CMP’s sting videos last summer. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Abortion Federation (NAF), and StemExpress, a fetal tissue processing firm that once worked with Planned Parenthood, have all sued in federal court in California.

Daleiden often frames his work as citizen journalism, but in a brief filed with the NAF lawsuit, 18 of the country’s leading journalists and journalism scholars noted that “calling himself an ‘investigative journalist’ … does not make it so.”

In April, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office searched Daleiden’s California apartment as part of an ongoing investigation into the CMP’s secret recording methods.

Officials in a dozen states, including Washington state, have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing in its tissue donation programs, and eight additional states have declined to investigate the health-care provider.

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