Before I tell you why it's such great news that California's new Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has filed felony charges against a pair of anti-abortion activists who accused Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue for profit, let me ask you a few questions:
Have you ever been vaccinated against polio, rubella, measles, chicken pox or Hepatitis A?
Do you know anyone with arthritis, cystic fibrosis or hemophilia whose life has been improved with medical treatment?
Do you worry about Zika virus, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or breast cancer? How about spinal cord injuries or Lou Gehrig's disease?
If you answered yes, you owe a debt to fetal tissue research, which has played an important role in developing treatments or potential treatments for each of those maladies.
Which is why it was so hard to watch the hysteria unleashed in 2015, when the Center for Medical Progress, a front for anti-abortion activists, released misleading videotapes purporting to show abortion doctors and tissue procurement executives engaged in "selling the body parts of aborted children" for profit, which is against the law.
Nothing of the sort proved true. Planned Parenthood does charge biomedical research companies to collect fetal tissue, but only to cover its expenses, which is permitted under federal law. After this episode, Planned Parenthood announced it would no longer collect any reimbursements.
The center's creator, David Daleiden, and his alleged co-conspirator, Sandra Merritt, had created false identities, including California driver's licenses, and a fabricated company, BioMax, to gain access to a meeting of the National Abortion Federation, where they secretly recorded conversations with eight conference attendees.
Later, they used those contacts to set up meetings with biomedical research providers in two California cities, and again, "secretly recorded the meetings they initiated under false pretenses," according to an affidavit filed in support of a state arrest warrant for Daleiden and Merritt.
Attacking abortion by attacking fetal tissue research is ultimately a fool's errand. Fetal tissue has been used in research since the 1930s, and its benefits are unquestionable. So too, I would argue, are the benefits of abortion itself.
On March 28, Becerra announced that he had charged Daleiden and Merritt with 14 felony counts each of recording confidential conversations without permission. He charged them with one count each of felony conspiracy for planning their project. Daleiden's attorney has called the charges "nothing short of a witch hunt."
Becerra did not file charges against Troy Newman of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, despite his self-proclaimed involvement in hatching the ruse. When the Center for Medical Progress registered with California as a charitable trust in 2013, Newman was listed as one of its officers.
On Aug. 6, 2015, Newman told an evangelical radio host that the Center for Medical Progress project grew out of meetings he had with Daleiden "three years ago in my office in Wichita, Kansas."
"We already knew that Planned Parenthood is breaking the law in trafficking in human organs after their abortions," Newman said in that interview. "We set out to expose that and create an investigative journalism organization that would embed ourselves into the abortion cartel and to catch them off-script."
Newman, who was recently deported from Australia after officials there accused him of inciting violence against abortion providers (a charge he denies), is not off the legal hook entirely.
Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation have included him as a defendant in civil lawsuits connected to the fetal tissue subterfuge. (Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction against the Center for Medical Progress preventing the group from disseminating material collected at the National Abortion Federation meetings it infiltrated.)
Newman's misuse of the phrase "investigative journalism organization" is particularly galling. The Center for Medical Progress is to investigative journalism what the Onion is to real news: a joke.
The idea that anti-abortion extremists like Daleiden, Merritt and Newman defend their alleged lawbreaking by swaddling themselves in the First Amendment is laughable.
Real journalists know they may not break the law in pursuit of a story. Real journalists seek the truth. Real journalists do not manipulate their reporting, or the words of others, to serve a political goal. Real journalists are skeptics, whose work must pass the muster of editors, who act as gatekeepers.
Do real journalists sometimes fall down on the job? Of course. But they don't set out to twist the truth and lie.
"One can search the history of investigative journalism and find numerous stories that saved someone's life, or cost a corrupt official his job," wrote journalist Mark Lee Hunter on the website of the Global Investigative Journalism Network last year. "I know of no professionally done story that designated people as fit for harassing and attacking."
And that brings us to some of the real damage that Newman, Daleiden and Merritt have inflicted with their "investigation."
Contrary to what Daleiden's attorney has said, the real witch hunt is what took place after the Center for Medical Progress videos were released.
How much taxpayer money will be wasted before our elected officials realize that abortion and fetal tissue research are not just legal, but critical to the greater social good?
The other, even less acceptable cost of subterfuges like Daleiden's is the dramatic spike in violence and death threats against abortion providers.
In July and August 2015, after Daleiden released his heavily edited videotapes, Planned Parenthood health centers reported 713 incidents of harassment or violence, compared with 188 in the same time period a year earlier. Nationwide, abortion providers received 94 death threats or threats of bodily harm in 2015, compared with one the year before.
In November 2015, anti-abortion extremist Robert Dear killed three people and wounded nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. According to the Associated Press, he told investigators he fired on the clinic because he was upset with "the selling of baby parts."
People like Daleiden, Newman and Merritt will probably never truly be held to account for the mayhem they inspire.
But the threat of civil judgments, fines or jail time is better than nothing.