Meet the checkered activists behind that ‘shocking’ Planned Parenthood video

Video of a Planned Parenthood official discussing abortion and the collection of fetal tissue for medical research has shocked major U.S. politicians. 

“Nothing is more precious than life, especially an unborn child,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement on Wednesday. “When anyone diminishes an unborn child, we are all hurt, irreversibly so.” Boehner likewise accused Planned Parenthood of “monetizing unborn children.” 

“We must all act,” he said.

Percolating beneath this high-horse is a tangle of anti-abortion activists and shell organizations created for the specific purpose of taking down Planned Parenthood.

The video referred to by Boehner was circulated on Monday by an organization called the Center for Medical Progress, which describes itself as a “group of citizen journalists.” It was captured a year ago by actors posing as employees of a “human biologics company.” During a lunch meeting with CMP’s actors, Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, discussed various aspects of fetal tissue collection and abortion procedures, unaware she was being recorded. She goes on to describe techniques that could be used by abortion doctors to deliver the types of organs viable for medical research.

Due to a number of intrinsic properties, fetal tissue has been used by researchers hoping to cure a variety of diseases including Parkinson’s, diabetes, and immunodeficiency disorders, according to the American Medical Association. The samples collected from elective abortions can only be donated by Planned Parenthood at the request of their patients. The question of whether it’s ethical to use aborted fetuses for medical research—something doctors have struggled with since the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1954 for a polio vaccine using fetal kidney cells—has been buried beneath a cloud of erroneous accusations drummed up by CMP’s covert recording.

Fetus tissue

The video’s title, “Planned Parenthood uses partial-birth abortion to sell baby parts,” is, by any journalistic standard, misleading. The “gotcha” moment comes when Nucatola is asked about the financial reimbursement Planned Parenthood’s clinics receive for providing fetal samples. The actors are told “probably anywhere from $30 to $100, depending on the facility and what’s involved.” As Planned Parenthood explained in a later statement, there is no financial benefit for tissue donation. They are, however, permitted under the law to request financial reimbursed for associated costs, such as transporting the samples to researchers.

“This is not something with any revenue stream that affiliates are looking at, this is a way to offer patients the services they want and do good for the medical community and still maintain access,” Nucatola further explains in a portion of the recording cut out of CMP’s widely circulated 9-minute video.

Although elective abortion has been a common source for fetal tissue for decades, politicians that oppose abortion are capitalizing on CMP’s video by expressing shock in the press and appearing generally confounded, as if a black market for “aborted baby parts” was exposed just this week. Republican members of congress and 2016 presidential candidates have jumped at the opportunity to reshape the abortion debate through the lens of CMP’s video, which has been sold by conservative news outlets as proof that Planned Parenthood’s clinics “sell the body parts of aborted babies.” An article on the website Daily Caller containing that exact wording was tweeted by Arizona Sen. John McCain on Monday.

Following the video’s release, two Republican governors—Greg Abbott of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana—promptly ordered investigations into Planned Parenthood’s donations. “Today’s video of a Planned Parenthood official discussing the systematic harvesting and trafficking of human body parts is shocking and gruesome,” Jindal, a 2016 presidential candidate, said on Monday. In tweet Wednesday, Abbott said Texas would “look into those organ harvesting claims.”

Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, admitted during a news conference on Wednesday that he’d seen the video weeks before. Murphy was later asked by a Roll Call reporter why he waited until this week to take action. Asking not to be quoted, Murphy reportedly walked away, telling the reporter: “This interview didn’t happen.”

Yet, even as Republican leaders rush to embrace CMP’s accusations, august news organizations, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, have remained quiet about the anti-abortion activists behind the video. As such, online news outlets have been left to pick up the ball.

In a Wednesday article, the New York Times describes CMP only as a “little-known” group. However, CMP is for the most part unknown because, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t exist more than a week ago. As noted by Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, CMP’s blog and Twitter account were created in the past week. Although established in May, CMP’s Facebook page featured no content until the release of the Planned Parenthood video on July 14. 

Described by Marcotte as a “fly-by-night organization,” CMP is apparently an offshoot of Live Action, an anti-abortion group with a dubious reputation and ties to criminal activity.

Lila Rose

In 2011, Planned Parenthood sought the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after a man representing himself as a pimp reportedly approached staff members in 12 health clinics about procuring STD services for sex workers, some of whom were described as underage. Through its own research, Planned Parenthood eventually tied the individual to Live Action. Reached by reporters, the group’s founder and president, Lila Rose, refused to confirm or deny the allegations.

Rose, who has formal ties to CMP’s activists, came to notoriety in 2008 after visiting a health care clinic posing as an underage girl impregnated by a fictitious 23-year-old boyfriend. During the appointment, Rose solicited advice from a Planned Parenthood employee—which she secretly recorded—on how to circumvent the clinic’s notify policies; under California law, the clinic would have been required to report Rose’s boyfriend for statutory rape. Planned Parenthood later admitted that the clinic worker had violated policy, though the details are sparse, and no laws were broken because Rose was not actually a minor. 

The recording was removed from YouTube after Rose received a cease-and-desist order filed on the basis that she had violated California privacy laws, which prohibit such recordings without the consent of all parties.

During a similar sting in 2009, codenamed “The Mona Lisa Project,” Rose posed as 13-year-old girl seeking help from Planned Parenthood. A heavily edited recording with added background music—presumably to increase its dramatic quality—captured a clinic worker telling Rose: “I didn’t hear the age. I don’t want to know the age. It could be reported as rape. And that’s child abuse.” Planned Parenthood responded by saying mistakes are inevitable in an organization with 30,000 employees and volunteers. But as the Los Angeles Times points out, Rose’s video is intentionally deceptive. Edited out of the recording, another clinic worker is heard saying, “We have to follow the laws.” Another worker urges Rose to discuss the pregnancy with her mother.  

David Daleiden

Rose’s various sting operations were planned with the assistance of James O’Keefe, a former Breitbart columnist notorious for producing his own undercover videos. O’Keefe was arrested by the FBI in January 2010 for plotting to tamper with the telephones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office. O’Keefe and three accomplices were charged with malicious intent to damage a phone system, which was later reduced to a misdemeanor count of entering a federal building under false pretenses.

CMP, an organization that seemingly sprang to life in the past few days, is closely tied to Live Action through its leader, David Daleiden, the man behind the camera in CMP’s sting video. Daleiden became Live Action’s “director of research,” according to his now-deleted bio, “during the early stages of the Mona Lisa Project.” In addition to his work with Rose, Daleiden allegedly has ties to O’Keefe as well. In 2009, conservative writer Chuck Johnson described the two as friends.

Biomax Procurement Services

According to a leaked Planned Parenthood report, the dummy company used to engineer the meeting between its director and CMP’s actors is called Biomax Procurement Services. Biomax is registered as “a biological specimen procurement organization,” headquartered in Norwalk, California. 

According to the California Secretary of State, Biomax was established in October 2013 as a limited liability company with the aid of Ventura County attorney Phillip Cronin. Its address sits somewhere in a Norwalk shopping center between a 7-11 convenience store, a Chuck E Cheese’s, and a donut shop.

There is no evidence that Biomax has ever conducted biological specimen procurement.

Consequences of CMP

Despite all this, CMP’s tactics have already worked. 

A Yahoo report published Thursday found that the timing of the video’s release coincided with a bipartisan House bill that would have raised funds for breast cancer research through the sale of a commemorative coin. The Susan G. Komen foundation would receive half the money raised through sales of the coin. 

Komen, however, awards grants to Planned Parenthood to help women receive breast cancer screenings. 

Due to the sudden outrage surrounding Planned Parenthood as a result of the video, however, support for the bill dropped from 307 co-sponsors, nearly half of whom were Republicans, to so few that the bill was dropped from the day’s agenda entirely.

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.