Big Abortion v. David Daleiden

Published May 21, 2021

The Human Life Review


In the middle of the day on April 5, 2016, agents from the California Department of Justice burst into the Orange County apartment of journalist David Daleiden and raided it.1 Less than one year earlier, Daleiden had released shocking footage that he filmed during an elaborate undercover operation to expose the abortion industry for its complicity in fetal-tissue trafficking.

The raid on his apartment had been ordered by then-attorney general of California Kamala Harris, who justified her decision by claiming that Daleiden had violated state law when he made and publicized videos of abortion providers engaged in horrific and likely illegal practices.

Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress (CMP)—a group of pro-life citizen journalists and activists—first began unveiling those videos in the summer of 2015. Posing as a potential fetal-tissue buyer, Daleiden had captured video evidence suggesting that prominent abortionists, Planned Parenthood executives, and biotechnology companies were engaged in a systematic campaign to profit from the body parts of aborted babies, in violation of state and federal laws.

Nearly six years later, despite congressional investigations confirming much of what he had exposed, Daleiden and his team have been the only ones to face serious legal repercussions. Ever since Daleiden began to show the public what he had discovered, abortion organizations and their political allies have targeted him, bringing the force of law against him for having dared to expose the wrongdoing of malefactors in the abortion industry.

The explanations for that injustice rest primarily on the fact that abortion organizations possess immense financial resources, which they wield to obscure evidence of their unsavory practices and illegal activity. They rely heavily on assistance from legal and political actors who support abortion and who use their power to protect abortion providers from consequences. They have come to expect favorable, kid-glove coverage from legacy media outlets determined to demonize prolifers and ignore the truth about abortion and the grisly industry that sustains it.

As a result, Daleiden and his allies have spent years fighting in court to keep his videos available and to keep him out of jail, while the abortion purveyors whose corruption he revealed have skated by mostly unscathed. Due in large part to the gruesomeness of the footage, the release of the CMP videos in 2015 received a great deal of initial attention. But Planned Parenthood executives immediately rolled out a public-relations campaign to defend the group’s image, and media allies mounted an enormous effort to defend Planned Parenthood and discredit Daleiden.

By the time lengthy congressional investigations confirmed that Planned Parenthood and others involved in fetal-tissue trafficking appeared to have flouted numerous significant laws, the news cycle and the public had, for the most part, lost interest. Daleiden was left to face the wrath of those whose nefarious dealings and grave legal violations he had so graphically exposed—and his fight for justice continues to this day.


“I’d say a lot of people want liver,” said Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, captured covertly in one of CMP’s undercover videos.

Over a lunch of salad and wine, Nucatola was chatting with David Daleiden about Planned Parenthood’s system for collecting and selling fetal tissue from aborted babies at the group’s clinics. Secretly filming the exchange, Daleiden was posing as a potential buyer from Biomax Procurement Services, a front he created so that abortionists would talk openly with him about their methods of fetal-tissue procurement and the payment they expected in return.

In response to Daleiden’s questions about what specimens Planned Parenthood affiliates could procure, Nucatola casually described the way in which abortionists modify their procedures—often contrary to relevant laws—to obtain intact and therefore more valuable organ and tissue samples from aborted babies:

And for that reason, most providers will do this case under ultrasound guidance, so they’ll know where they’re putting their forceps. The kind of rate-limiting step of the procedure is the calvarium, the head is basically the biggest part. Most of the other stuff can come out intact . . . So then you’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know, so I’m not gonna crush that part. I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.

In another of the CMP videos, Planned Parenthood senior executive Dr. Mary Gatter haggled with Daleiden over the cost of performing an abortion procedure to obtain fetal parts: “The money is not important, but it has to be big enough that it makes it worthwhile for me. . . . It’s been years since I’ve talked about compensation, so let me just figure out what others are getting and if this is in the ballpark, that’s fine.”

“If it’s still low,” Gatter continued, “we can bump it up. I want a Lamborghini.”

With each video that CMP released in the summer of 2015—slowly unveiling just one a week over the course of a few months—a picture of widespread horror came into focus. Confiding in Daleiden, who recorded each of his encounters while posing as a potential buyer of fetal tissue, abortion-industry insiders had exposed their own cooperation in illegal activity.

In violation of federal and state laws, Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country were routinely procuring body parts from aborted babies for biotech firms, which acted as middlemen for research groups looking to buy fetal tissue. With each transaction, the abortion provider took a payment from the tissue-procurement organization, which in turn made a profit for providing the body parts to universities and other medical researchers.

While experimenting on aborted babies is legal in the U.S., profiting from the tissue and organ procurement process is not. That’s why the bulk of Planned Parenthood’s initial response to the videos revolved around the claim that the fetal tissue in question had been donated, first by the women who chose abortion and then by the abortion organization.

But as the extensive comments captured on film illustrate, Planned Parenthood executives involved in the procurement process had no intention of offering their services for free. What’s more, the videos and further investigation revealed that Planned Parenthood affiliates often didn’t obtain informed consent from the women whose babies they shipped off to be used for research, flouting both legal requirements and the definition of “donation.”

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood workers rarely had been doing the organ or tissue procurement work themselves. Nevertheless, financial documents reveal that the group regularly accepted “reimbursement” fees from their biotech partners. For instance, in a partnership with StemExpress LLC—a biotech firm that subsequently sued Daleiden for exposing its role in this illegal marketplace—Planned Parenthood clinics involved in the fetal-tissue industry offloaded the work of organ harvesting to company technicians, then accepted a payment for each tissue sample, allegedly a reimbursement for labor, shipping, and handling costs.

Planned Parenthood affiliates were accepting payment for what, in the group’s own words, was a “donation,” as well as for samples that involved no work or transport for which the group would need to be reimbursed.

But when the videos first became public, these behind-the-scenes questions about illegal profits were not what caught the public eye—it was their horrific content. In one video, former StemExpress technician Holly O’Donnell describes an experience she had while working inside Planned Parenthood Mar Monte’s Alameda clinic in San Jose, California:

“I want you to see something kinda cool. This is kinda neat,” [O’Donnell’s coworker says]. So I’m over here, and . . . the moment I see it, I’m just flabbergasted. This is the most gestated fetus and the closest thing to a baby I’ve seen. And she is, like, “Okay, I want to show you something.” So she has one of her instruments, and she just taps the heart, and it starts beating. And I’m sitting here, and I’m looking at this fetus, and its heart is beating, and I don’t know what to think.2

O’Donnell was then instructed to “harvest” the child’s brain: “[She] gave me the scissors and told me that I had to cut down the middle of the face.”

In another video, filmed by Daleiden at a National Abortion Federation (NAF) conference, Dr. Susan Robinson, an abortionist at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, said the following during a panel presentation for industry colleagues:

The fetus is a tough little object, and taking it apart, I mean, taking it apart on Day One is very difficult. . . . You go in there, and you go, “Am I getting the uterus or the fetus? Oh, good, fetus. [Robinson made a stabbing sound effect.] What have I got? Nothing. Let’s try again.”3

Clearly afraid of the PR nightmare that would be provoked by these graphic statements from the mouths of their own officials, Planned Parenthood immediately went on the offensive. The group launched a campaign lambasting CMP and Daleiden and insisting, with no evidence, that the videos had been manipulated or deceptively edited. From these claims, media outlets took their marching orders.

If the videos received any coverage at all, it was focused not on the facts or details of what they exposed but rather on the false claim that the footage had been doctored or maliciously altered. In nearly every prominent media outlet, the videos were dismissed as “deceptively edited,” as if Daleiden and CMP somehow had managed to fabricate entire clips, using technology to make it appear as if Planned Parenthood executives had implicated themselves when in fact they hadn’t.

HuffPost labeled the CMP videos “debunked,” Newsweek called them “a debunked anti-choice propaganda campaign,” and ThinkProgress referred to “discredited sting videos.” The Hill and U.S. News & World Report, among other outlets, repeatedly cited Planned Parenthood’s evidence-free assertion that the videos were “heavily edited and misleading.”

But contrary to the claims of Planned Parenthood and its defenders, the videos were never discredited or debunked in any meaningful way. In fact, quite the opposite. Shortly after releasing the initial videos, CMP placed on its website consecutive hours of undercover footage that Daleiden had shot. Alongside the clips, the group gave viewers access to the entire context of each video, allowing critics and sympathizers alike to review the footage for themselves. This put the lie to the notion that crucial context had been removed to make the statements on video appear more incriminating than they really were.

Meanwhile, two independent forensic reviews of the footage confirmed that the audio hadn’t been tampered with and that, compared with the full-length footage, nothing substantial or contextually necessary had been taken out of the videos. One of those reviews was commissioned by Planned Parenthood itself and performed by Democratic research firm Fusion GPS.4 Though Planned Parenthood pretended otherwise, even that review determined that its “analysis did not reveal widespread evidence of substantive video manipulation.”5

Immediately after the videos surfaced, leaders in Congress began a thorough examination, headed in the House of Representatives by a Select Investigative Panel of the Energy and Commerce Committee and in the Senate by the Committee on the Judiciary. By early 2017, after a series of document reviews and hearings with witnesses, reports from both investigatory groups had confirmed key details of what Daleiden captured on tape.

According to the work of both groups, available evidence suggested that biotech firms and abortion providers including Planned Parenthood had indeed knowingly violated laws protecting patient privacy and the rights of late-term and born-alive infants, laws regulating anatomical gifts for research, and laws governing public funding for fetal-tissue research.6 Though Planned Parenthood executives announced several months after the videos were released that its affiliates would cease accepting “reimbursements” for providing fetal tissue, the damage had already been done.7

At the end of the congressional investigation, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referred several organizations incriminated by the evidence to the FBI and the Department of Justice for further investigation and possible criminal prosecution. Those referrals included the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and its affiliates Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, Planned Parenthood Northern California, and Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, along with several biotech firms that had been implicated by the footage and subsequent investigation.

In 2017, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the groups whose employees had implicated themselves in illegal activity. Nevertheless, to this day, not a single Planned Parenthood official or affiliate has been held legally responsible for any of the wrongdoing uncovered. Instead, Daleiden and his colleagues have weathered half a decade of legal battles for having obtained the damning footage in the first place.


Since publicizing the footage that he captured at great personal risk, Daleiden and his team have faced extraordinary legal pressure from opponents, at both the criminal and civil levels. At stake for the pro-life journalist is more than $14 million in damages and fees, as well as the possibility of prison time in the state of California. Meanwhile, one of the legal battles in which he is embroiled involves the ongoing public availability of his videos, which leaders in the abortion industry seek to suppress through the force of law.

In July 2015, just after CMP began releasing Daleiden’s undercover videos, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) filed a lawsuit against him in a California district court, seeking a temporary restraining order to ensure that he could no longer distribute or publicize the footage he had obtained at their events.10

They claimed that the video and audio tapes were “illegally obtained” from NAF annual meetings in 2014 and 2015 and that, if Daleiden were able to continue publishing them, he would cause “irreversible harm to NAF, its employees’, and NAF members’ safety, security, privacy, and reputations.”

The presiding judge in that case, William Orrick III, has faced intense criticism from Daleiden’s legal team and others in the pro-life movement for his close association with Planned Parenthood.11 Nevertheless, Orrick has been permitted to continue presiding over the case, and during the course of NAF’s lawsuit, the judge issued an injunction prohibiting Daleiden from continuing to publish the videos from the group’s conference. Later, Orrick held two of Daleiden’s attorneys in violation of the gag order for having republished the videos on their law firm’s website.

That injunction was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2017, and Daleiden appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the gag order at issue in the case is of the sort that the Court itself identified in Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976) as “presumptively unconstitutional.”12 In the petition, Daleiden’s lawyers argued that the videos contain essential information about an issue of public interest, granting Daleiden a right to speak and the public a particular right to hear. The Supreme Court declined to hear Daleiden’s appeal.

The National Abortion Federation asked the district court for a permanent injunction to forbid Daleiden from ever publishing the videos again, bringing an end to this lawsuit. In April 2021, Orrick granted NAF’s request, issuing a permanent injunction, which prohibits Daleiden from releasing the rest of his footage. Daleiden’s lawyers have indicated that they plan to appeal the decision.13

The second ongoing civil case, Planned Parenthood v. Center for Medical Progress, has been unfolding for five years and has resulted in more than $14 million in total damages and legal fees assessed to Daleiden. In January 2016, Planned Parenthood, along with its local affiliates implicated in the videos, filed suit in the same California district court that heard the NAF case.
In the suit, Planned Parenthood argued that Daleiden had organized a “complex criminal enterprise” seeking to interfere with women’s access to legal abortion.14 The group and its affiliates sought damages for alleged ongoing harm to its image and services, claiming that the videos exposed “these clinics, their staff, and their patients to unfair and damaging publicity that disrupted patient care and required costly measures [to] ensure safety and security at the clinic.”

In November 2019, a San Francisco jury agreed with Planned Parenthood’s claims and ordered Daleiden to pay $2.2 million in damages to the abortion provider. In late 2020, Orrick—who is presiding over both this case and National Abortion Federation v. Center for Medical Progress—ordered Daleiden to pay an additional $12 million in legal fees to Planned Parenthood and its affiliates.

On February 26, 2021, attorneys for Daleiden, CMP, and other co-defendants filed opening briefs in an appeal to the Ninth Circuit, claiming that the multi-million-dollar ruling by the district court has “run roughshod over the First Amendment.”15

“If allowed to stand,” the brief explains, “the judgment is not only an affront to the rule of law, but it threatens the existence of undercover journalism itself, a critical means to effect societal change.” This case has the potential to reach the Supreme Court.

The third ongoing case against Daleiden is a criminal lawsuit brought by California attorney general Xavier Becerra, now Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Joe Biden. In March 2017—picking up where his attorney-general predecessor Kamala Harris left off—Becerra filed 15 criminal charges against Daleiden and his CMP colleague Sandra Merritt in San Francisco Superior Court, related to their alleged violations of California Penal Code section 632(a), which requires that all parties involved in a confidential conversation consent to being recorded.16

While a judge dropped several of the initial charges before allowing the case to proceed, in February 2020, Daleiden and Merritt were each arraigned on nine charges. Both pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Daleiden’s attorneys have alleged that he is the first journalist ever to have been prosecuted under this statute.17

Some of the legal efforts to target Daleiden, however, already have been resolved in his favor. The first criminal case against him, brought in January 2016 by the Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston, Texas, carried the threat of 20 years in prison. The suit was dropped in July of the same year.18

Another suit was brought against CMP in July 2015 in Los Angeles County, California, by StemExpress, one of the biotech firms implicated in Daleiden’s footage. In StemExpress v. Center for Medical Progress, the tissue-procurement organization attempted to prevent Daleiden and CMP from releasing any further footage that exposed their involvement in illegally profiting from fetal-tissue trafficking. StemExpress was later denied its request for a gag order,19 charged with contempt of Congress for evading the requirement to cooperate with the congressional investigation of the footage, and referred to the FBI and Justice Department for criminal prosecution.20

Not one to back down from criminal charges, Daleiden has countersued the state of California and those responsible for launching the criminal investigations against him, including Becerra and now-vice president Kamala Harris. In his suit, Daleiden accuses the state of “content-based” selective enforcement of video-recording statutes, arguing that they are using these laws as weapons to silence “disfavored speech.”

“David Daleiden became the first journalist ever to be criminally prosecuted under California’s recording law,” reads his complaint, “not because of the method of video recording he utilized in his investigation—which is common in investigative journalism in this state—but because his investigation revealed and he published ‘shock[ing]’ content that California’s Attorney General and the private party co-conspirators wanted to cover up.”

The complaint notes that several of Harris’s California Department of Justice agents who executed the raid on Daleiden’s apartment had serious misgivings about their search warrant, believing it was neither supported by probable cause nor sought in good faith. It appears likely that criminal law wasn’t the primary motivating factor in Harris’s decision to launch the probe against Daleiden. A Los Angeles Times piece published shortly after the raid highlights the scrutiny Harris faced for her political ties to Planned Parenthood. Her campaign page for her Senate race at the time urged supporters “to take a stand and join Kamala in defending Planned Parenthood.”21

Daleiden’s complaint goes on to accuse Harris and Becerra of depriving Daleiden of the equal protection of the laws. Indeed, it is worth comparing the treatment he and his colleagues have received for their undercover campaign with the reception given to animal-rights activists who expose how animals are mistreated at factory farms or other food-production plants.

Rather than resulting in repercussions for those who share undercover footage, investigations conducted22 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society, and other animal-welfare groups routinely lead to sanctions or even legal charges against groups and individuals that are revealed to have mistreated animals.23 In fact, so striking are the parallels between this undercover activism and the work of CMP that animal-rights nonprofits such as PETA and Mercy for Animals, Inc., have filed amicus briefs with the Ninth Circuit in support of Daleiden and Merritt, arguing that the decision against them will harm First Amendment journalism.24

While the animal-agriculture industry has rallied behind bills known as “ag-gag” laws, designed to make it more difficult for whistleblowers to reveal animal abuse on industrial farms, most suits invoking “ag-gag” laws have resulted in the statutes being struck down as unconstitutional.

By contrast, Daleiden has faced severe reprisals for revealing rampant abuse and lawbreaking within an industry that profits from the organs of aborted babies. Instead of enjoying the protection of whistleblower laws, he has been threatened with significant punishment for violating minor recording and privacy statutes, while those who broke a series of significant federal and state laws have evaded judgment.


Shortly after Daleiden and CMP released their undercover footage, several states moved to render Planned Parenthood ineligible as a Medicaid provider. Citing the video evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Texas and Louisiana, among others, told Planned Parenthood that it would no longer qualify as a Medicaid-eligible health-care provider and therefore would no longer receive state funding.

Several years later, as the result of judicial interference, those efforts to defund Planned Parenthood affiliates at the state level are still pending, though the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed that states may determine which providers are qualified to participate in Medicaid. It isn’t unimaginable that such a case might rise to the Supreme Court, where the justices would have a chance to pass judgment on the matter, perhaps not on Planned Parenthood’s qualifications, but at least on the question of whether states may defund the abortion group without facing lawsuits from Medicaid recipients or from the group itself.

Those cases exist because of David Daleiden, who gave state officials material with which to illustrate Planned Parenthood’s profound unfitness for taxpayer funding. This is just one reason why the abortion industry responded so harshly to CMP’s work, leaning on the judicial branch and powerful politicians to punish Daleiden and suppress the footage he obtained.

The abortion industry knew as well as he did that anyone who watched those videos, undaunted by claims of deceptive editing, would be exposed to a horrible reality: Planned Parenthood and its allies have conducted an extensive, illegal scheme to profit from the body parts of the hundreds of thousands of unborn babies they kill each year.

In the end, that is what abortion providers and their supporters fear the most—not the legal reprisals they might face for having violated the law but the possibility that Americans might see firsthand the evil Daleiden uncovered and recoil in horror from the truth of abortion.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


  1. Alexei Koseff, “David Daleiden describes apartment raid,” Sacramento Bee, February 6, 2018, available at:
  2. Ian Tuttle, “California’s Moral Atrocity,” National Review Online, March 30, 2017, available at:
  3. Alexandra DeSanctis, “‘I Might . . . Pull Off a Leg or Two’,” National Review Online, May 25, 2017, available at:
  4. Ian Tuttle, “Planned Parenthood’s Commissioned Video Review Proves the Authenticity of Its Employees’ Ghoulish Statements,” National Review Online, August 28, 2015, available at:
  5. NR Interview, “ADF Senior Counsel Discusses Forensic Report on Planned Parenthood Videos,” National Review Online, October 12, 2015, available at:
  6. U.S. Senate, Energy & Commerce Committee, Select Investigative Panel (December 30, 2016), available at:
  7. Tamar Lewin, “Planned Parenthood Won’t Accept Money for Fetal Tissue,” New York Times, October 14, 2015, available at:
  8. [Follow-up letter] Letter from Charles Grassley, U.S. Senator and Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, to Jeffrey Sessions, U.S. Attorney General and James Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigations (April 24, 2017), available at:
  9. Alexandra DeSanctis, “No, the DOJ Investigation of Planned Parenthood Is Not a Witch Hunt,” National Review Online, December 9, 2017, available at:
  10. Motion for Temporary Restraining Order in National Abortion Federation v. The Center for Medical Progress, et al, Case No. 3:15-cv-3522 (N.D. Cal 2015), available at:
  11. Petition for Writ of Mandamus, Planned Parenthood, et al. v. Center for Medical Progress, et al. Case No. 3:16-cv-00236 (N.D. Cal 2017), available at:
  12. Petition for Writ of Certiorari, David Daleiden et al. v. National Abortion Federation, available at:
  13. Graham Piro, “Judge Prohibits Release of Undercover Pro-Life Activist’s Recordings,” Washington Free Beacon, April 9, 2021, available at: See also: “Abortion Provider Nears Win In Bid To Block Activist’s Videos,”, February 27, 2021, available at:
  14. Complaint for Damages and Declaratory and Injunctive Relief in Planned Parenthood et. al v. David Daleiden, available at:
  15. “Undercover Investigators with Planned Parenthood Videos Appeal $16 Million Retaliation Lawsuit,” Center for Medical Progress, March 1, 2021, available at:
  16. Criminal Complaint in The People of the State of California v. David Robert Daleiden and Sandra Susan Merritt (SF Sup. Court, 2017), available at:
  17. Complaint for Damages, Declaratory, and Injunctive Relief, The Center for Medical Progress and David Daleiden v. Xavier Becerra, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, et al. (N.D. Cal 2020), available at:
  18. Alexa Ura, “Charges Dismissed Against Anti-Abortion Activists Who Made Video,” The Texas Tribune, July 26, 2016, available at:
  19. Alexandra DeSanctis, “StemExpress Drops Its Lawsuit Over Undercover Fetal-Parts Video,” National Review Online, January 12, 2017, available at:
  20. Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, “StemExpress, et al. v. Ctr. For Med. Progress, et al,” available at:
  21. Paige St. John, “Kamala Harris’ support for Planned Parenthood draws fire after raid on anti-abortion activist,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2016, available at:
  22. PETA, “Victory, Angel’s Gate Dissolved,” November 4, 2015, available at:
  23. The Humane Society of the United States, “Anti-whistleblower ag-gag bills hide factory farming abuses from the public,”, available at:
  24. Liberty Counsel, “Animal rights groups file court briefs supporting pro-life investigators’ free speech,” Live Action, March 9, 2021, available at:

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