David Daleiden became an anti-abortion activist back in high school in Davis, California, learning tactics from his elders and helping mobilize his peers. In college, he co-wrote an article with a professor depicting self-doubt among some abortion providers.
Now, as he turns 27, Daleiden has established himself as one of the most polarizing figures in America’s ever-heated abortion debate.
The anti-abortion movement views him as a hero for producing a series of undercover videos that seek to implicate Planned Parenthood in illegalities related to the handling of fetal tissue. Many abortion rights supporters see him as a villain, contending that he used deceptive and illegal tactics to infiltrate locations where the videos were made.
Both the praise and the invective intensified after Monday’s announcement in Houston that a grand jury had indicted Daleiden and one of his colleagues, Sandra Merritt, on a felony charge for using fake driver’s licenses to gain access to a Planned Parenthood facility in Texas. Daleiden was also indicted on a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs; Planned Parenthood says it turned down an “astronomical amount” offered by Daleiden to procure fetal organs.
Daleiden issued a statement saying his group — the Center for Medical Progress — “uses the same undercover techniques” as investigative journalists and follows all applicable laws.
Daleiden did not reply to emails seeking further comment on Tuesday. However, Daleiden’s lawyer, Murphy Klasing, said his client and Merritt would travel from their home bases in California to Texas to plead not guilty to the charges.
The indictment was the second legal blow this month aimed at Daleiden and his group. On Jan. 14, Planned Parenthood filed a federal court lawsuit in San Francisco alleging that extensive criminal misconduct occurred in the process of producing the videos.
The reply from Daleiden was feisty.
“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.”
Daleiden, who describes himself as a “citizen journalist,” engaged in anti-abortion activism while attending Davis High School, working with like-minded college students and older activists. He entered Claremont McKenna College in 2007 and graduated with a B.A. in government.
While there, he became research director for Live Action, an anti-abortion group that released covertly made videos targeting Planned Parenthood in 2011.
He also co-wrote an article for The National Weekly, along with Claremont McKenna professor of government Jon Shields. It was titled “Mugged by Ultrasound” and asserted that many medical professionals and other employees at abortion facilities became demoralized by their work and “defected to the pro-life cause.”
In 2013, Daleiden formed the Center for Medical Progress; an application filed with the state of California said the nonprofit’s mission would be to “monitor and report on medical ethics and advances.” Longtime anti-abortion activists were listed as the center’s officers, including Troy Newman, president of the Kansas-based group Operation Rescue.
Daleiden then proceeded to organize and carry out the 30-month undercover video operation, which he called “Human Capital.” He and Sandra Merritt posed as representatives of a fake biomedical company, and sought to demonstrate that Planned Parenthood illegally sold parts of aborted fetuses to researchers.
Daleiden, who is Roman Catholic, told the National Catholic Register last year that he prayed for the abortion providers he met during the project. And he said he considered Planned Parenthood medical director Deborah Nucatola, the target of the first video, a friend.
“Everyone on the investigative team who worked with Dr. Nucatola really liked her; she was always very personable,” Daleiden told the Catholic news outlet.
Planned Parenthood has denied any wrongdoing in connection with its fetal tissue practices, saying a few clinics used to accept legally allowed reimbursement for the costs of providing tissue donated by some of its clients. In October, Planned Parenthood announced that it would no longer accept reimbursement and would cover the costs itself.
The Houston grand jury that indicted Daleiden also investigated Planned Parenthood and cleared it of any wrongdoing.
Planned Parenthood says it also has been cleared by investigations in 11 states that were launched after release of the videos. Republican-led investigations in Congress and some other states remain pending.
Neither the indictment nor the Planned Parenthood lawsuit seem to have diminished Daleiden’s stature among anti-abortion activists. Indeed, LifeSiteNews.com launched a petition campaign calling on Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson to drop the charges against Daleiden and Merritt.
Texas Right to Life denounced the grand jury proceedings as a politically motivated “kangaroo court” and expressed solidarity with Daleiden and his colleagues.
“We are deeply grateful that they brought to light the barbarity that we knew was happening behind the closed doors at Planned Parenthood,” the group said.
Last week, ahead of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Daleiden was a featured speaker at a string of events held by anti-abortion organizations, and received an award from the conservative Family Research Council.
In his acceptance speech, Daleiden expressed optimism that the videos would end up undermining Planned Parenthood.
“I am very hopeful that 2016 is going to be a watershed moment for abortion, for the pro-life movement,” he said.