A Texas grand jury has cleared a Planned Parenthood affiliate of accusations it sold fetal tissue for profit, and instead indicted two pro-life activists whose secret recordings ignited a national debate over the abortion provider’s activities, a state prosecutor said Monday.
The activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, were indicted on charges of tampering with a government record. Both posed as executives of a fake biomedical research company to tape Planned Parenthood doctors and clinic managers talking about harvesting fetal tissue, according to court documents.
Mr. Daleiden was also indicted under a law prohibiting the solicitation or sale of human organs, which suggests grand jurors thought he went too far in trying to snare Planned Parenthood.
“As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us,” Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said in announcing the findings.
The indictments mark a stunning reversal for pro-life activists, who seized on the secret videos as evidence that Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider network, was breaking the law through the actions of some of its affiliates.
Harvesting and selling fetal tissue for profit is illegal, and a series of videos released last summer by the Center for Medical Progress, which Mr. Daleiden heads, appeared to show employees at several Planned Parenthood facilities negotiating sales.
Mr. Daleiden, in a statement Monday night, questioned how he could be charged with buying fetal tissue if Planned Parenthood wasn’t also charged with selling it.
“The Center for Medical Progress uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press, and follows all applicable laws,” he said. “We respect the processes of the Harris County District Attorney, and note that buying fetal tissue requires a seller as well. Planned Parenthood still cannot deny the admissions from their leadership about fetal organ sales captured on video for all the world to see.”
Planned Parenthood said the videos were misleadingly edited and insisted that it had done no wrong. On Monday, the organization said the indictments were vindication.
“These anti-abortion extremists spent three years creating a fake company, creating fake identities, lying and breaking the law. When they couldn’t find any improper or illegal activity, they made it up,” said Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
A number of investigations of Planned Parenthood, including several in Texas, are continuing. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have voted to form a special committee to investigate the abortion provider. A number of Republican-led states have cut funding for Planned Parenthood in the wake of the videos.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said the indictments are just a first step and that he is awaiting the other investigations’ conclusions.
“The Health and Human Service Commission’s Inspector General and the Attorney General’s office have an ongoing investigation into Planned Parenthood’s actions,” he said in a statement after the indictments were announced. “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation. The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue.”
In the meantime, legal troubles are mounting for Mr. Daleiden and his group.
Last week, Planned Parenthood filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the Center for Medical Progress, saying the activists engaged in a conspiracy to damage clinic business with misleading videos.
That case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick, who is handling another case against the Center for Medical Progress filed by the National Abortion Federation. In that case, Judge Orrick sided with the National Abortion Federation in a preliminary ruling that the activists with the Center for Medical Progress likely misrepresented themselves as they tried to sneak video footage of abortion providers.
According to the racketeering lawsuit, Ms. Merritt portrayed the CEO of Biomax, the fake medical research company the activists used. She assumed the name of Susan Tennenbaum, printed a fake driver’s license and created a Facebook page where she listed herself as a fan of liberal causes and figures, such as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.
Mr. Daleiden portrayed himself as Robert Daoud Sarkis, vice president of operations at Biomax, according to the racketeering lawsuit.
The charge of tampering with a government record is a felony in Texas. Soliciting or selling human organs is a misdemeanor.
Ms. Anderson, the Republican district attorney who presented the case, said she approached the case as an investigation into Planned Parenthood and presented all the evidence to the grand jury, which made its decision.
“I respect their decision in this difficult case,” she said.