A grand jury convened to investigate whether a Houston Planned Parenthood clinic had sold the organs of aborted fetuses on Monday cleared the clinic and instead indicted the undercover videographers behind the allegations, surprising the officials who called for the probe and delighting supporters of the women’s health organization.
The Harris County grand jury indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, both of California, on charges of tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. It also charged Daleiden, the leader of the videographers, with the same misdemeanor he had alleged – the purchase or sale of human organs, presumably because he had offered to buy in an attempt to provoke Planned Parenthood employees into saying they would sell.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced the indictments in a statement, noting the probe had lasted more than two months.
“As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us,” said Anderson, a Republican. “All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case.”
An arrest warrant was issued late Monday; documents detailing the charges were expected to be available Tuesday.
The videographers, who had posed as employees of a company that buys tissue and filmed interactions with Planned Parenthood executives, issued a statement saying they had not committed any crimes.
“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,” the statement said, adding, “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 has denied any such admissions or wrongdoing, calling the videos heavily edited and saying it has never profited from selling fetal tissue, only received reimbursements for the costs of preserving the tissue for research, which is legal. The group sued Daleiden last month.
Anderson’s statement said the grand jury “cleared (Planned Parenthood) of breaking the law.”
Still, the dozen videos released by the Center for Medical Progress of Planned Parenthood clinics around the country already have had a huge impact, including an effort in Congress to defund the organization.
In Texas, lawmakers are studying new laws on fetal tissue donation, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said it will drop Planned Parenthood from the Medicaid program.
More probes pursued
The Harris County investigation was one of several that began in the state after the center released footage of a Houston clinic executive casually discussing the methods and costs of preserving fetal tissue, which Republican state officials said was proof the organization was making a profit.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party firebrand from Houston, was the first to call for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to investigate. He also directed a state Senate committee to conduct its own probe.
On Monday, Patrick issued a statement saying the Senate probe would continue because “the horrific nature of these videos demand scrutiny and investigation.”
Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who also ordered their own investigations, released statements saying they would continue.
“The fact remains that the videos exposed the horrific nature of abortion and the shameful disregard for human life of the abortion industry,” Paxton said.
Planned Parenthood officials declared victory, however, saying they felt vindicated after being cleared by the lengthy non-partisan investigation.
“It’s great news because it demonstrates what we have said from the very beginning, which is that Planned Parenthood is following every rule and regulation, and that these people came into our buildings under the guise of health when their true intentions were to spread lies,” said Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which runs the Houston clinic as well as facilities in Louisiana.
Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast previously has acknowledged donating fetal tissue in 2010, but has said it did not make any profit then and has not even donated since.
Across the country, two Planned Parenthood branches currently participate in tissue donation programs, according to the organization.
The National Abortion Federation was more direct in its celebration of the indictments.
“As we’ve known all along, David Daleiden is the one who broke the law, not abortion providers,” said Vicki Saporta, the abortion-rights group’s president and CEO.
Daleiden, 26, has said he was a “child of a crisis pregnancy” and has been involved with anti-abortion work since he was 15. He was involved in undercover video work by a group called Live Action in 2007.
He spent years working on the effort on fetal tissue, which is not studied often today, but in the past has helped lead to several medical breakthroughs, including an early polio vaccine.
Planned Parenthood has said he secretly recorded staff and patients at least 65 times over the last eight years. The organization also has alleged that Daleiden used aliases, obtained fake government identifications and formed a fake tissue procurement company to gain access to private areas and record private conversations to be deceptively edited.
The second indictment suggests the grand jury found that he went too far in trying to provoke Planned Parenthood to admit to selling tissue. That charge, for intentionally buying or selling a human organ, is punishable by up to a year in jail while tampering with a governmental record could result a sentence of up to 20 years.
That would be a high price to pay, despite the success that Daleiden had in sparking investigations and legislative studies.
The indictments did not appear to have any chance of slowing those efforts.
In fact, one prominent anti-abortion activist suggested that they were more proof that laws needed to be changed.
“I think the grand jury decision today shows that we have very weak laws when it comes to this,” said John Seago of Texas Right to Life. “The Legislature needs to address this.”
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