UPDATED – SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNS) — Two California pro-life advocates are facing 15 felonies for making undercover videos of Planned Parenthood affiliate officials alleging they committed improprieties regarding fetal tissue and organs.
California prosecutors March 28 charged David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress in Irvine with felonies for filming 14 people without permission between October 2013 and July 2015 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and El Dorado counties. One felony count was filed for each person and the 15th count was for criminal conspiracy to invade privacy, AP reported.
In a statement posted on the website of the Irvine center he founded, Daleiden said the “bogus charges from Planned Parenthood’s political cronies are fake news.”
“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in announcing the charges. “We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”
In the videos, Planned Parenthood officials are shown discussing the illegal marketing and sale of fetal tissue with Daleiden and Merritt, who posed as representatives of a mythical fetal tissue procurement firm.
Planned Parenthood said any allegations it “profits in any way from tissue donation is not true” and that any money it received from labs were processing fees.
“As we have said from the beginning and as more than a dozen different state investigations have made clear: Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong, and the only people who broke the law are those behind the fraudulent tapes,” Mary Alice Carter, interim vice president of communications of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement March 28.
“The California attorney general filing criminal charges sends a clear message that you cannot target women and you cannot target health care providers without consequences,” she said. “We look forward to justice being served.”
Daleiden and Merritt’s videos showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing fees related to fetal tissue, but the organization said monies it received were standard reimbursement fees charged to researchers. But in the fall of 2015, Cecile Richards, the CEO of Planned Parenthood, announced the organization would no longer accept the reimbursements.
In his statement, Daleiden said the public “knows the real criminals are Planned Parenthood and their business partners like StemExpress and DV Biologics — currently being prosecuted in California — who have harvested and sold aborted baby body parts for profit for years in direct violation of state and federal law.”
Last October, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed a lawsuit against DV Biologics and its sister company, DaVinci Biosciences, in Orange County Superior Court.
The lawsuit accuses the two Yorba Linda medical companies of advertising and selling hundreds of units of fetal tissue and stem cells to research facilities around the world, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
Rackauckas, in announcing the lawsuits, said the companies treated human parts as commodities rather than following the law.
“We look forward to showing the entire world what is on our yet-unreleased videotapes of Planned Parenthood’s criminal baby body parts enterprise, in vindication of the First Amendment rights of all,” Daleiden added in his statement.
A member of his legal defense team, Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Chicago-based pro-life law firm Thomas More Society, said Daleiden and co-defendant Merritt “will be vindicated.”
“They will assert robust defenses to these charges,” Brejcha said in a statement March 28. “Their efforts were in furtherance of First Amendment values and are clothed with the same constitutional protection that all investigative journalists deserve and must enjoy. Undercover journalism has been a vital tool in our politics and self-governance.”
Brejcha said Daleiden and Merritt will use the same vigorous defense they did to fight charges they faced in Texas but which were later dropped. “History is on our side,” he added.
In January 2016, Daleiden and Merritt were charged with a felony and a misdemeanor for reportedly tampering with government records and using fake IDs to enter a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston. The charges came after a grand jury was convened in September 2015 to decide the case. But no action was taken until five months later.
The two activists posted bond and went to court in February of that year, rejecting plea deals.
The Thomas More Society team filed a motion to dismiss the charges that April. It argued that the hold on the case, along with “other irregularities relating to acquisition of evidence” and “improper disclosure of secret grand jury matters” had compromised Daleiden’s right to due process in Texas.
The court dropped the misdemeanor charge that June. Texas District Judge Brock Thomas dropped the felony charge July 26.
The Los Angeles Times in a March 30 editorial said it was “disturbingly aggressive for Becerra” to apply the criminal statute against recording people without the consent of all parties.
There is no argument, it said, that Daleiden and Merritt “surreptitiously recorded” medical officials, but “as misguided as they were, their aim was to change people’s views on important and controversial issues — abortion and fetal tissue research.” But the parties the two filmed in an effort to discredit them have recourse, the editorial said, because they can sue the videographers.
Daleiden and Merritt’s case is no different, the editorial said, than the “case of animal welfare investigators who have gone undercover at slaughterhouses and other agricultural businesses to secretly record horrific and illegal abuses of animals. That work, too, is aimed at revealing wrongdoing and changing public policy.”