“It started out a day like any other,” David Daleiden was telling the crowd outside the Sacramento Planned Parenthood clinic. “I was making lunch.”
The gathering wasn’t large, maybe 75 people. Most were too old to personally ever have to deal again with the topic of Daleiden’s speech, abortion. Still, as the 27-year-old activist behind the Planned Parenthood video sting discussed his crusade to shut down the abortion provider, they listened with the rapt deference of elderly civilians greeting a war hero.
“I had some chicken I was going to make with garlic and onions,” Daleiden continued, his eyes bright, his anecdote polished. “And I had to take out my garbage. So I took the kitchen trash and walked out to the dumpster, and started to turn the corner to come back inside, and there was this big, white, unmarked van sitting in the parking lot.
“And right as I rounded the corner, a big guy in a uniform stepped out, and he said, ‘David?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m with the California Department of Justice, and we have a warrant to search your house.’ ”
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A shiver went through the assemblage. Few experiences would be more unnerving than a phalanx of armed law enforcement officers trooping over your threshold. Daleiden, a slight, childless bachelor living in Huntington Beach, far from his hometown of Davis, stood straight, smiling the seen-it-all smile of a soldier.
The experience didn’t faze him, he shrugged. And maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s a thing now for kids in their 20s to be targeted by the attorney general and have their computers seized, as Daleiden did early this month, by the California Department of Justice.
Maybe it’s no biggie to get indicted in Texas, as he also has been, and sued in federal court in California. And it must help that Daleiden’s legal bills, along with the nonprofit that employs him, are underwritten by well-funded organizations and donors, just as Planned Parenthood and its partisans have amply funded the U.S. Senate campaign of Attorney General Kamala Harris.
‘The management of StemExpress should be taken by force and killed in the streets today,’ a Fox News viewer named Scott Anthony Orton posted on the conservative network’s website days after Daleiden’s videos posted. ‘Kill StemExpress employees. I’ll pay you for it.’
So, heady stuff. And maybe the rush has so far outweighed the potentially life-wrecking legal fallout. But as he spoke, I couldn’t help thinking of the all the people who actually have been terrified in the 10 months since Daleiden and his Center for Medical Progress unleashed their spy-cam “investigation.”
I thought of the employees at Planned Parenthood clinics in Illinois, New Orleans, Washington and Thousand Oaks, whose workplaces were firebombed after Daleiden claimed – falsely, as far as authorities have discerned – that the discussions he’d caught on tape, about the legal procurement of fetal tissue for research, actually amounted to “trafficking” in “baby parts” in violation of federal and state statutes.
I thought of the frightened women in places like Texas, where dubious legal hurdles have closed about half the state’s clinics, and of frightened doctors and research scientists who have been picketed and harassed for the past year.
And of Garrett Swasey, the 44-year-old police officer, father of two and evangelical church elder who was killed when an unbalanced man claiming to be a “warrior for the babies” opened fire on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in November amid the video furor. And Ke’Arre Stewart, the 29-year-old Iraq war veteran and father of two, who, even as he was bleeding to death from gunshot wounds, tried to warn people inside the clinic to take cover.
And of Jennifer Markovsky, 35, who had gone to the clinic with a friend, just to be kind, and was shot to death, leaving two more children.
And of Cate Dyer, who, two days after her Placerville biotech firm was mentioned on one of Daleiden’s videos, became the target of death threats.
“The management of StemExpress should be taken by force and killed in the streets today,” a Fox News viewer named Scott Anthony Orton of Puyallup, Wash., posted in one of a long series of rants on the conservative network’s website days after Daleiden’s videos posted. “Kill StemExpress employees. I’ll pay you for it.”
Orton, who pleaded guilty last week to federal charges of transmitting interstate threats, wrote that Dyer “should be hung by the neck using piano wire and propped up on the lawn of the (StemExpress) building.”
In January, Dyer told a federal judge that, in the past year, the armed, ex-military security guards she has had to hire for herself and her family have caught cars surveilling her house, photographers in trees and, on one particularly chilling morning, a pile of cigarette butts behind a bush on a fence line near her master bedroom.
‘It’s my life; that’s my birth, that’s where I came from,’ Daleiden insisted, losing his sang-froid for just a moment. ‘It’s my story, and that’s who I am, and that’s where I come from, and nobody can take that from me.’
Of course, the crowd outside Planned Parenthood on Saturday would point to the unborn lives pre-empted by abortion. Daleiden was explicit on that front, detailing the tinyness and terrible lifelessness of the fetal corpses he saw during his undercover filming.
Afterward, speaking with me and Sacramento Bee reporter Alexei Koseff, he reiterated his claim that though he never discusses his own family, he, too, was the “child of a crisis pregnancy” and “there were people who said I should be aborted.” As in the past, his mother, a highly regarded and much-loved former Davis school trustee who heads the child welfare nonprofit First 5 in Yolo County, declined to comment.
As a mother myself, I don’t blame her. Clearly, she loves her son, who was born when she was in her early 20s, an age when an unexpected pregnancy might create a crossroads, but generally not a “crisis.” I thought you didn’t discuss your parents, I said. Isn’t this their story?
“It’s my life; that’s my birth, that’s where I came from,” he insisted, losing his sang-froid for just a moment. “It’s my story, and that’s who I am, and that’s where I come from, and nobody can take that from me.”
And what of the death threats, the arsons, the murders of adults? Not his responsibility either, said Daleiden.
The Colorado shooter “was crazy” and “not part of the grass roots.” As for the fire bombings and the rest, he said, “I don’t think the pro-life movement or my videos have anything to do with that – my videos carry a strong message of nonviolence.”
Actually, the videos I saw were pretty incendiary, on purpose. And what’s strange is, they have come at a moment when both abortion rates and teen parenthood – the pregnancies people usually talk about when they talk about “crisis” – were at historically low levels. The availability of contraception has never been wider; under Pope Francis, even the Catholic church has taken a kinder, gentler stance, both on birth control and on judging other peoples’ difficult choices. The vast majority of Planned Parenthood’s clients come in for birth control now, not abortions.
So Daleiden’s side has already won in some ways. The couple of Planned Parenthood clinics that were allowing research labs to compensate them, however modestly, for storing and shipping fetal tissue now perform the service at no charge.
Yet here we are again, hardening the lines and rallying the troops. And taking on collateral damage, whether or not we take responsibility for it.
War may sound thrilling in war stories. But it’s hell. For everyone.