The series of videos secretly recorded by anti-abortion activists and dropped on YouTube this past summer triggered not just national outrage but federal, state and local inquiries into whether Planned Parenthood ignored guidelines for fetal tissue donation and instead illegally hawked fetal body parts for profit.
On Monday, the Harris County District Attorney's Office announced that its own investigation into the videos has resulted in criminal charges – not against any Planned Parenthood staff, but rather for two anti-abortion activists who used fake IDs to gain access to and secretly film inside of a Houston Planned Parenthood clinic last year.
A grand jury on Monday indicted both David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt on one count of tampering with a government record, a second-degree felony. Daleiden was additionally charged with one count of violating a state law that prohibits the sale or purchase of human organs, a Class A misdemeanor.
Harris County DA Devon Anderson launched the local investigation into Planned Parenthood last year upon learning that one of the undercover videos posted by the so-called Center for Medical Progress, a group with members tied to the radical fringes of the anti-abortion movement, was filmed inside a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast clinic. According to prosecutors, the Texas Rangers and Houston Police Department also took part in that investigation.
The investigation isn't the first to clear Planned Parenthood officials of wrongdoing – across the country, several other inquiries launched as a reaction to the CMS videos have ended with a whimper and without charges. What's remarkable about Harris County's investigation is that it is the first to result in criminal charges against the activists who filmed those undercover videos, which Planned Parenthood says have led to increased harassment and threats of violence against clinic staff.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
A lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed last month against the activists details how Daleiden and Merritt infiltrated closed-door conferences for abortion providers and Planned Parenthood clinics. First they used pseudonyms and fake IDs to file incorporation papers for a fake medical tissue procurement company. They ultimately lied their way into becoming exhibitors at conferences put on by Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, where Daleiden and Merritt connected with abortion providers across the country — that's how they got follow-up meetings with Planned Parenthood staffers they would surreptitiously record.
According to the lawsuit, Daleiden and Merritt gave fake IDs to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast staff so they wouldn't be flagged as anti-abortion activists; according to the lawsuit, the clinic screens IDs against “a database of known anti-abortion extremists and harassers.”
Prosecutors didn't elaborate on the charges against Daleiden and Merritt on Monday. “We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast,” Anderson said in a brief prepared statement. “As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us. All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case.”
No word yet on whether this changes things for state health officials, who last year cited the Daleiden/Merritt videos as reason to boot Planned Parenthood from Medicaid.