The XX Factor

The Anti-Abortion Activists Who Spied on Planned Parenthood Have Received Felony Charges

David Daleiden at the Harris County Courthouse on February 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.

Eric Kayne/Getty Images

Two anti-abortion activists who filmed undercover videos of themselves trying to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood have been charged with 15 felonies in California. Prosecutors say David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress used fake identities and an invented bioresearch company to meet medical providers and record their private conversation without consent at several locations in the state.

Daleiden is a 28-year-old activist whose undercover videos have electrified the anti-abortion movement since he started releasing them in 2015. The first and most notorious video captured a Planned Parenthood medical director discussing the donation of fetal tissue with what some saw as callous informality—over wine and salad, as abortion opponents like to emphasize. The employee thought she was having a conversation with two representatives of a tissue-procurement company. Within months of the video’s release, the Washington Post called Daleiden “the biggest star in the anti-abortion firmament.” The National Abortion Federation reported that violence and threats against abortion providers rose “dramatically” after the videos began to be released.

Daleiden and Merritt were indicted on similar charges in Texas last year, but those charges were dropped after six months. Meanwhile, investigators in California were moving forward with their case, searching Daleiden’s apartment almost a year ago, and seizing a laptop and hard drives. We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations,” California attorney general Xavier Becerra said in a statement this week. (Becerra is a former Congressman who took over for rising Democratic star Kamala Harris when she became a senator this year.)

Trying to create a diversion, perhaps, the Center for Medical Progress released another undercover video Wednesday. The 12-minute clip posted to YouTube consists of snippets of conversation taped at the North American Forum on Family Planning, an annual conference for health-care providers and researchers. The video depicts DeShawn Taylor, a doctor who owns an abortion clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., talking frankly at a networking event about performing second-trimester abortions.

In the video, Taylor tells an undercover activist that Arizona law requires abortion providers to transport a fetus to the hospital if it emerges with any signs of life. (Republican legislators in Arizona are now attempting to require abortion providers to maintain their own resuscitation equipment for this purpose.) The activist, posing as a representative of “Biomax Procurement Services,” asks her if there are procedures in place for verifying signs of life. “You need to pay attention to who’s in the room, right?” Taylor replies, and then restates her commitment to following the law, although she sounds exasperated by it.

The new video’s editing is jumpy and the connections it suggests are sketchy—the usual CMP touch. But it’s worth noting how the video reinforces the group’s strategy of vilifying Planned Parenthood in particular. Taylor stopped working as medical director of Planned Parenthood Arizona in 2012 and served only as a supervising physician for a PP clinic in Nevada through 2016, while concentrating on her own clinic in Arizona.* But Daleiden’s video and the accompanying press release go out of their way not to identify Taylor’s current clinic. He’s not going after her as an abortion provider; he’s going after her as a representative of Planned Parenthood. The chyron by Taylor’s name in the video reads “Medical Director Emerita, Planned Parenthood Arizona.” There’s a little Planned Parenthood logo by her name, the title of the YouTube post calls her a “Planned Parenthood Abortionist.” When she speaks, the transcription uses the logo as shorthand for her name. When Taylor mentions she was trained by Deborah Nucatola, the medical director featured in the first “wine and salad” sting, the video jumps back and replays the segment in black-and-white as if to say: Make sure you got that: She was TRAINED by PLANNED PARENTHOOD.

In a statement responding to this week’s charges, Daleiden said “the bogus charges from Planned Parenthood’s political cronies are fake news.” Since 2015, his videos have prompted several state and Congressional investigations, including a special panel that spent 15 months and $1.59 million and still failed to find evidence that abortion providers broke the law by profiting from fetal tissue sales. He has energized the anti-abortion movement, but failed to provide any evidence that Planned Parenthood acted illegally. If the state of California is right, the only one who has broken the law is David Daleiden himself.

*Correction, Mar. 30, 2017: This post originally misstated the period of DeShawn Taylor’s work with Planned Parenthood.