David Daleiden catapulted to stardom in the anti-abortion movement after his nearly three-year investigation of Planned Parenthood thrust the country's largest abortion provider into a public relations firestorm and prompted heated investigations by congressional Republicans.
Daleiden's undercover footage showing how some clinics supply aborted fetal tissue to biomedical companies, which in turn sell it to researchers, has prompted Planned Parenthood to ban its clinics from getting compensated for the tissue, although the group says it didn't break any laws.
But Daleiden insists Planned Parenthood did break the law, and the group is suing him for impersonating a human tissue buyer and infiltrating its clinics to get the videos. In January, a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges of purchasing or selling human organs and tampering with a governmental record.
Meanwhile, Republicans and abortion foes have eagerly embraced Daleiden's footage, saying it's strong evidence that Planned Parenthood profited financially from aborted fetuses and performed illegal abortions to obtain them.
The Washington Examiner recently spoke to the 26-year-old activist to get his thoughts on his investigation and the fallout from it.
Washington Examiner: What had you hoped would result from your investigation?
Daleiden: At the time we put out the first video, it had been 15 years since the last time the trafficking of aborted fetal tissue had been in the news or had been a major topic in public discourse. In part, that was my biggest goal in doing the investigative journalism.
I feel there's a really cruel paradox at the heart of baby body parts trafficking. Their humanity isn't enough to be protected by law, but at the same time it's their human identity that makes them valuable for scientific exploration. I feel like for that entire policy discussion, and just for our own integrity as people, the baby parts issue needs to be front-and-center. Now it is front-and-center in the abortion debate, so that's a victory.
Examiner: Where do you think you did the most damage to Planned Parenthood?
Daleiden: It's definitely a little bit of a difficult toss-up between profiteering off of fetal tissue versus doing illegal abortion methods. I think it is easier to prove, and the evidence is best, for Planned Parenthood's illegal profiteering. In order to prove partial-birth abortion, you kind of need to have the body or someone in the procedure room. But in terms of the for-profit sale of fetal tissue, it's very clearly the business model Planned Parenthood was using at most of their affiliates.
In that model, where you have an outside procurement company sending harvesting technicians into the clinics to do all the work of fetal tissue collection, for Planned Parenthood it's free. There's no cost to Planned Parenthood to do that, and yet they're still getting paid per fetal organ by these companies. There's no way that model is legally defensible.
Examiner: But no one has yet proven Planned Parenthood broke federal law, which doesn't specify how much can be paid for fetal tissue before it's considered profit.
Daleiden: The law doesn't make an exception for overhead costs. It makes exceptions for hard costs of facilitating tissue donations. But even the contractors themselves, Stem Express and other companies, make it clear the payments are on a per specimen basis and Planned Parenthood only gets the payments if the specimen is a high enough quality so it meets the specifications. So you could have a situation where Planned Parenthood does some of the work, they could do all of that work allegedly, and still if the fetal tissue specimen was not of high enough quality they would not get payment, according to the contract.
Examiner: What do you think of the new special committee on fetal tissue that House Republicans recently created based on your findings?
Daleiden: I was hoping for maybe just one congressional investigation after we released the videos ... it turns out there were five. And now everything is consolidated into the select committee and I think that committee is already doing some really good work in terms of really drilling down into all the different issues raised by the videos.
Examiner: You posed as a representative from a fake biomedical company in order to get into Planned Parenthood clinics and a National Abortion Federation conference. Do you think that was ethical, especially given your Catholic faith?
Daleiden: For the public at large, undercover work, I think most people realize, is a key part of both journalism and law enforcement and most people really don't find that controversial. For the specific moral theology question, I think the tradition of the church is pretty clear in that undercover work is not the same as malicious lying, but the goal of undercover work is not just to protect people but also to actually communicate the truth more clearly.
Examiner: Was there ever a point at which you were afraid you had been exposed?
Daleiden: There were a few meetings where the interactions we had with some of the abortion providers initially seemed really tense to me. I just remember there were maybe two or three different conversations where something was said and someone gave a look that seemed, I guess, just really suspicious or somehow not as friendly as you would want in that situation.
One good example is the lunch with Mary Gatter, who was the president of Planned Parenthood's Medical Directors Council. For a long period of that lunch she was very tense and was quite aggressive in her questioning of myself. After that meeting I was concerned for a couple of days as to what Dr. Gatter's suspicion level might have been, but then we saw her again at the Planned Parenthood medical directors meeting and she was perfectly friendly and congenial, so I came to learn that was her personality. She has that ornery personality when she first meets you and then warms up to you later.
Examiner: Did you make any friends among the Planned Parenthood employees you talked to, or just enemies?
Daleiden: Deb [Nucatola] was our best friend the whole time. I still consider her a friend. I don't know how she feels about me.
Examiner: You had a team of people helping you do the undercover work, including Sandra Merritt, who also impersonated a tissue procurement representative. How did you select them for the project?
Daleiden: They are just people who were very intelligent and very trainable. None of them were professional actors, but they were people who were very trainable in the sort of acting you need to do.
Examiner: You yourself seemed pretty convincing posing as a tissue buyer.
Daleiden: I don't know if I would say I'm a good actor necessarily, but everyone was chosen to portray roles that came more naturally to them. We tried not to change too much about everyone's personality, so I had the nerdy science geek persona to portray.
Examiner: You displayed a lot of knowledge about tissue procurement in the footage. How did you learn about the industry?
Daleiden: I've been to several regenerative medicine and stem cell science meetings, trade shows and conferences. A lot of it was just hands-on immersion in some of these environments.
Examiner: You're in some deep legal waters, now that Planned Parenthood is suing you in federal court. Care to comment?
Daleiden: It's interesting that the lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed kind of threw everything but the kitchen sink at me, but the one thing they did not sue for is defamation. They are upset by the way we went about doing it, but they are not claiming in a legal sense that we said anything that was untrue.
Examiner: You were also indicted last month by a grand jury that cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing. Are you nervous any of the charges will hold up in court? How are you handling the increased public scrutiny?
Daleiden: Journalism is not a crime, and it's becoming increasingly clear that the grand jury's indictments don't fit the law or the facts. Planned Parenthood is whom the public scrutinizes when they see the videos of Planned Parenthood's senior leadership admitting their barbaric harvesting practices and profit motive in supplying aborted baby parts.
Examiner: You released your videos in July and August last year. Any particular reason for that timing?
Daleiden: It was kind of an accident. There were quite a few people who said you can't release it over the summer, there's a lull in the summer, [the media] won't cover it. It was mainly timed to be released quickly after all the investigative work was done and before Planned Parenthood had a chance to find out what had happened or find out how deeply we had investigated them.
There was kind of the game to it where, for two-and-a-half years, we had people undercover and we had this model procurement organization that was working with abortion providers and Planned Parenthood. We were having these conversations for months and months, ultimately never signing a contract, never showing up to purchase body parts. There was concern they'd eventually say fish or cut bait, you guys are never showing up.
Ethically we were never going to sign the contract, so there was a window that was quickly closing every month that went by. We were doing undercover work up until a week before the first media release.
Examiner: Many anti-abortion groups would probably love to bring you on staff. Are you making any moves in that direction or do you want to stick with your group, the Center for Medical Progress?
Daleiden: There's certainly been some offers and some requests like that. My focus is on investigative journalism with a focus on bioethical issues that impact human dignity in a significant way. That's the focus of the Center for Medical Progress as well, and I think that's where I'm going to stay with things for the foreseeable future.
Examiner: Do you have any more investigations up your sleeve?
Daleiden: There are definitely other things planned and other things in the works, but for the most part right now I'm focused on the current project presentation. There's still plenty of unreleased footage and still plenty under court order.
Examiner: You've gotten some death threats since releasing the videos. Are you concerned for your physical safety?
Daleiden: There definitely have been a couple of death threats and other threats of bodily harm. Planned Parenthood did also hire a private investigator who was stalking me, she did show up outside my house a couple months ago. We made a police report about that and law enforcement has dealt with that, so I'm not seeing her anymore. I think whenever you put yourself out there publicly, I think that is a risk that comes with the territory.
Examiner: It took months to schedule an interview with you. Are you reticent to talk to the press?
Daleiden: I'm happy to do it in general. There are two considerations. Number one is just a time issue, especially back in the heyday of the full media release there was so much work to be done every week to get the next video ready that it was hard to find time to talk to everybody who wanted to do a story. So we had to be a little more selective back then. And the consideration is then that I don't want the story to be about me at the end of the day. It's about the baby body parts trafficking issue. I want to make sure I'm doing a good job of presenting the work itself.