"The people behind this fraud lied and broke the law in order to spread malicious lies about Planned Parenthood," said Dawn Laguens, the organization's executive vice president. "This lawsuit exposes the elaborate, illegal conspiracy designed to block women's access to safe and legal abortion."
The anti-abortion activists, who named their group the Center for Medical Progress, began releasing a series of covertly recorded videos in July alleging that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue to researchers for a profit in violation of federal law.
Planned Parenthood has denied any wrongdoing, saying a handful of its clinics provided fetal tissue for research while receiving only permissible reimbursement for costs. The lawsuit says the videos were the result of numerous illegalities, including making recordings without consent, registering false identities with state agencies and violating non-disclosure agreements.
The civil lawsuit was filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as legal fees. A Planned Parenthood lawyer, Beth Parker, declined to estimate how much money would be sought, but it said the amount would include extra money spent since the videos' release on additional security for Planned Parenthood clinics.
David Daleiden, a founder of the Center for Medical Progress who oversaw the video operation, said he looked forward to confronting Planned Parenthood officials in court.
"My response is: Game on," he said in an email. "I look forward to deposing all the CEOs, medical directors, and their co-conspirators who participated in Planned Parenthood's illegal baby body parts racket."
The lawsuit alleges that Daleiden and several collaborators, including longtime anti-abortion activist Troy Newman, "engaged in a complex criminal enterprise to defraud Planned Parenthood." The suit contends that the Center for Medical Progress violated the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act (known as the RICO Act), engaging in wire fraud, mail fraud, invasion of privacy, illegal secret recording and trespassing.
According to the suit, Daleiden, Newman and other defendants used aliases, obtained fake government IDs and formed a fake tissue procurement company, Biomax, in order to gain access to private medical conferences and health care centers, and to tape private professional conversations of medical providers.
The videos provoked an outcry from the anti-abortion movement, and prompted numerous investigations of Planned Parenthood by Republican-led committees in Congress and by GOP-led state governments. Thus far, none of the investigations has turned up wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood in regard to fetal tissue research, but Republicans in Congress and in several states are seeking to cut off government funding to the organization.
The videos created a "poisonous environment" in which Planned Parenthood staffers were targeted with hate mail and death threats, said Parker, the organization's lawyer. She cited the attack in November on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in which three people were killed; the man arrested in the shooting depicted himself in court as a "warrior for the babies."
Planned Parenthood is the leading abortion provider in the United States, and also provides a range of other health services, including cancer screenings, contraceptives and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.