Court proceedings are underway to determine whether David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the activists who began exposing Planned Parenthood's financial dealings with fetal body parts harvested during abortions four years ago, should face a criminal trial.
In what is being described as the "put-up-or-shut-up stage" in the preliminary hearing for the pair of investigators — who started publishing in the summer of 2015 undercover video footage of top Planned Parenthood executives and clinicians talking cavalierly about their transactions with biotech companies regarding fetal organs obtained through abortions — Planned Parenthood staffers who were filmed took to the witness stand.
A California Planned Parenthood staffer, identified as Doe 7, testified on Tuesday that "she provided fetal tissue from the abortions she did at Planned Parenthood as a regular occurrence," according to a summary by The Center for Medical Progress, founded by Daleiden.
"When asked if she had ever heard of StemExpress, Doe 7 said she had heard of cases in which StemExpress was involved and money was exchanged. StemExpress and Planned Parenthood Northern California are both under ongoing FBI and U.S. Department of Justice investigation for selling fetal organs and tissue against the law."
Stem Express is a biotech firm known for its procurement of fetal body parts for research purposes.
Melissa Fowler, vice president of external relations at the National Abortion Federation, claimed under oath that "she does not know what a fetal tissue procurement organization is, even though she recognized StemExpress as a repeat NAF vendor," CMP noted.
Daleiden and Merritt are charged with 15 counts of felony invasion of privacy and are accused of creating a fake biotech firm in order to pose as buyers interested in fetal tissue. The two activists used fake names to enter NAF meetings that were held in 2014 and 2015 to tape what happened.
Prosecutors say the footage was obtained in an illegal manner, though CMP argues that NAF’s Exhibitor Rules and Regulations did not prohibit video recording.
Attorneys for the pro-life activists assert this is a political hit job on pro-life journalists.
“What today has revealed is the prosecution by the attorney general is political in nature and built on a house of cards,” said Horatio Mihet, Merritt's attorney, in comments to Courthouse News.
Daleiden's and Merritt's attorneys stress that California Democratic politicians like presidential candidate and senator Kamala Harris and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra — both of whom are strongly supportive of abortion rights — are beholden to groups like Planned Parenthood in light of the sizable campaign contributions they have received from them. Only Daleiden and Merritt have been uniquely subjected to the kind of aggressive prosecutorial action they are facing, they maintain.
Attendees, speakers and exhibitors at the NAF meetings had all reportedly signed confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from sharing details about the conference to anyone not in attendance, Courthouse News reported.
Fowler testified that the trade group works extensively to protect the identities of those who attend the conference, and said she had no knowledge of the sale of fetal body parts in question.
Outside the courtroom, Daleiden’s attorney, Peter Breen, said California’s penal code, enacted under the California Invasion of Privacy Act, excludes any conversation that can be reasonably overheard or recorded.
“None of the content was confidential,” Breen said, adding that his client should be covered by the state's shield laws, which protects undercover investigative journalists.
During the proceedings, Breen cross-examined Doe 7, asking her if she has performed any "violent acts." The witness was apparently confused by the question.
He elaborated in a subsequent interview that selling fetal tissue from a patient who did not consent to such a sale constitutes "medical battery."
“If a person taping has a reasonable belief that they’re collecting evidence related to violent felonies, they’re OK,” he explained, noting, “If you can get any counts thrown out, it’s a win.”
Following the hearing, Daleiden said in a statement, “The first day of testimony confirmed what we have been saying all along — this is a biased attack on First Amendment civil rights and a political prosecution to shield Planned Parenthood from accountability for their crimes against women and children.”
On Wednesday, Doe 3, identified by CMP as a "famous 3rd-trimester abortion doctor," claimed she did not remember StemExpress. "[B]ut when questioned further, she acknowledged that workers from a procurement company that resold fetal organs and tissues made visits to the Planned Parenthood Mar Monte clinic she worked at in Fresno, CA."
The hearing will last nine days after which a state judge will determine whether Becerra's case will go to trial.