US grand jury clears Planned Parenthood but charges accusers

Anti-abortion activists indicted for video on foetal tissue procurement

Two anti-abortion activists behind the filming of videos on fetal tissue procurement by Planned Parenthood were indicted by a Texas grand jury on Monday, while clearing the women's health group of any wrong-doing. The footage purported to show Planned Parenthood officials trying to negotiate prices for aborted fetal tissue. Video: Reuters

 

A grand jury in the United States that was investigating accusations of misconduct against Planned Parenthood has instead indicted two abortion opponents who made undercover videos of the organisation.

Prosecutors in Harris County in Texas said one of the leaders of the Centre for Medical Progress – an anti-abortion group that made secretly recorded videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials trying to illegally profit from the sale of fetal tissue – had been indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record, a felony, and on a misdemeanor charge related to purchasing human organs.

That leader, David Daleiden (26), director of the centre, had posed as a biotechnology representative to infiltrate Planned Parenthood affiliates and surreptitiously record his efforts to procure tissue for research. Another centre employee, Sandra Merritt, was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record.

Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organisation that provides reproductive health services to mostly lower-income Americans. Some of its locations perform abortions.

Abortion opponents claimed that the Centre for Medical Progress videos, which were released starting in July, revealed that Planned Parenthood was engaged in the illegal sale of body parts – a charge the organisation has denied and that has not been supported in numerous congressional and state investigations triggered by the release of the videos.

On Monday, the Harris County district attorney, Devon Anderson, said in a statement that grand jurors had cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. She declined to provide details about the case against Mr Daleiden and Ms Merritt, including any documents or evidence presented to the grand jury, citing state law on the secrecy of grand jury proceedings. “As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us,” Ms Anderson said. “All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case.”

The release of the videos last summer created a furore and gave new strength to the conservative drive to defund Planned Parenthood. The organisation was forced to apologise for the casual tone that one of its officials used to discuss a possible transfer of foetal tissue to what she believed was a legitimate medical company. But Planned Parenthood said the fees being discussed were to cover costs and were legal.

Governor of Texas Greg Abbott, a Republican, said on Monday that the inspector general of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas attorney general’s office had been investigating Planned Parenthood’s actions. “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation,” Mr Abbott said in a statement. “The state of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of foetal tissue.”

The state attorney general, Ken Paxton, said in a statement: “The fact remains that the videos exposed the horrific nature of abortion and the shameful disregard for human life of the abortion industry. The state’s investigation of Planned Parenthood is ongoing.”

The case in Harris County started in August, when Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas and an outspoken opponent of abortion and Planned Parenthood, asked Ms Anderson to open a criminal investigation into the organisation. His request came after the release of an undercover video recorded at a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast office in Houston with a research official for the organisation.

Mr Patrick,in a statement on Monday, played down the significance of the indictment, saying the recent anniversary of the landmark Roe v Wade decision – widely known as the ruling that legalised abortions in the US – was “a solid reminder of the over 50 million innocent lives that have been lost to abortions. I will never be deterred from standing up to fight to protect the unborn”.

‘Criminal enterprise’

Ms Anderson, a Republican who was appointed district attorney by then rovernor Rick Perry in 2013 and was later elected to the office, described the investigation on Monday as “lengthy and thorough”, and said it involved her office, the Houston police and the Texas Rangers. She said the grand jury reviewed the joint inquiry for more than two months.

This month in federal court in San Francisco, Planned Parenthood sued the Centre for Medical Progress, Mr Daleiden and other abortion opponents involved in the videos. The suit accused them of engaging in a three-year criminal enterprise to target the group.

“These people broke the law to spread malicious lies about Planned Parenthood in order to advance their extreme anti-abortion political agenda,” Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement on Monday. “As the dust settles and the truth comes out, it’s become totally clear that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are the criminals behind this fraud, and we’re glad they’re being held accountable.”

In a statement on Monday night, Mr Daleiden said: “The Centre 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. We respect the processes of the Harris County district attorney, and note that buying foetal tissue requires a seller as well. Planned Parenthood still cannot deny the admissions fromtheir leadership about foetal organ sales captured on video for all the world to see.”

In making the videos, Mr Daleiden and others have been accused of setting up a fake company called Biomax Procurement Services, creating fake identities and claiming to be part of a legitimate provider of foetal tissue to researchers. The charge of tampering with a governmental record appeared to be related to Mr Daleiden’s and Ms Merritt’s use of fake ID cards.

“We know that they used fake IDs that had their real photographs but fake names and fake addresses purported to be issued by the state of California,” said Josh Schaffer, a Houston lawyer who represents Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in the Harris County criminal investigation. Mr Daleiden and Ms Merritt presented those IDs to security at the Planned Parenthood office to gain entry to the building. “They never denied that they presented a fake ID,” Mr Schaffer said.

Mr Schaffer said he believed the misdemeanor charge stemmed from laws prohibiting offers to buy foetal tissue. He said that following the meeting with Planned Parenthood officials in Houston in April, Mr Daleiden sent an email to them in June offering to buy foetal tissue for $1,600 (€1,475) per sample. Planned Parenthood never responded to the offer, Mr Schaffer said.

“It does not surprise me that a grand jury that chose to correctly apply the law to the evidence that was presented would return this result,” he said. “The written charges have not been released publicly yet, so at this point I am working on my knowledge of the investigation.”

New York Times