On Monday we got a much-needed moment of comic irony in the “did Planned Parenthood sell fetal organs?” saga. The Harris County grand jury that heard evidence from the local law enforcement investigation into Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast not only concluded that doctors and clinic staff broke no laws, it indicted the two anti-abortion activists whose undercover footage inside a Houston clinic led to the investigation in the first place.
To Planned Parenthood, this must also feel like a much-needed win. The grand jury indictments essentially underscore allegations contained in the organization's lawsuit calling the Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group that secretly filmed Planned Parenthood doctors and staff discussing fetal tissue donation in very blunt terms, a criminal enterprise that waged a covert three-year war on the abortion provider.
When the videos were released last summer, they fueled conservative efforts at the federal and state levels to strip Planned Parenthood of any public funding. Naturally, Texas officials jumped at the chance. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for investigations into the organization’s actions, including the local one that ended in the indictments of two anti-abortion activists yesterday. Citing the videos as evidence, state health officials took the very bold step of kicking Planned Parenthood out of the state Medicaid program, which the feds say Texas cannot legally do.
Now, even with yesterday’s indictments, state officials appear to be unfazed by the fact that they’re planning to boot a women’s health care provider from Medicaid based on undercover videos shot by a couple of alleged criminals. On Monday Paxton actually reiterated the importance of those videos, saying in a statement: “The fact remains that the videos exposed the horrific nature of abortion and the shameful disregard for human life in the abortion industry. The state’s investigation of Planned Parenthood is ongoing.”
In a statement, Gov. Greg Abbott vowed that the state Health and Human Services Commission, which last year announced it would kick Planned Parenthood off Medicaid, would continue to investigate the organization: “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation. The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue.”
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Those investigations were part of an unrelenting wave of condemnation Planned Parenthood faced from conservative politicians following last summer’s release of the undercover videos shot by David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the activists charged this week with tampering with a government document, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. (Daleiden faces an additional misdemeanor charge that he violated a state law prohibiting the sale or purchase of human organs.) In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, Planned Parenthood claims the activists used fake IDs, signed non-disclosure agreements they had no intention of keeping, and even “stole one woman’s identity” in order to gain access to closed-door conferences with abortion providers, meetings with top Planned Parenthood staff and, ultimately, clinics in Denver and Houston.
Experts who have analyzed the activists’ footage say it was deceptively edited. But in a letter to Planned Parenthood last year, the state health department’s inspector general said the videos proved “you and your Planned Parenthood affiliates are no longer capable of performing medical services in a professionally competent, safe, legal, and ethical manner.” An HHSC spokesman wouldn’t answer questions Monday afternoon about what impact Monday's indictments might have on the state's plan to end Planned Parenthood's status as a Medicaid provider.
While HHSC has never really detailed the allegations that it says justify booting Planned Parenthood from the state's Medicaid program, HHSC’s letter to the organization last year also claimed the state has “reliable information indicating a pattern of illegal billing practices by Planned Parenthood affiliates” across Texas. That hardly appears to be slam-dunk evidence at this point. Three days after HHSC sent that letter, state investigators visited Planned Parenthood facilities across Texas with subpoenas demanding a mountain of records going back to 2010, including physician orders, progress notes, personal clinic notes, patient lab test results and a complete list of Planned Parenthood employees, including their home addresses and phone numbers (the state eventually dropped portions of its request). That means the state announced it wanted to ban Planned Parenthood from Medicaid three days before it started searching far and wide for evidence that would justify banning Planned Parenthood from Medicaid.
For his part, Ted Cruz, who last summer launched a nationwide campaign to defund Planned Parenthood because of the videos by Daleiden and Merritt, has been silent on criminal charges filed against the activists (we've asked for comment, and will update if we get it). Cruz has even touted his endorsement for president by Troy Newman, one of three board members of the anti-abortion group Daleiden and Merritt were working with as they went undercover. Newman, the man behind another notorious anti-abortion group that maintains a website listing the photos and home addresses of abortion providers, has in the past co-authored a book calling for abortion providers to be executed as convicted murderers “in order to expunge bloodguilt from the land and people.”