In the war on women, we are letting the terrorists win. "Terrorists" isn't a metaphor: In the public battle over women's access to safe and legal reproductive healthcare, we are treating dangerous anti-abortion extremists as though their ideologies are rational, balanced, and sensible.
Three weeks ago, an organization called the Center for Medical Progress revealed the results of a years-long investigative report. In a press release, the group claimed to have recorded video evidence proving Planned Parenthood was profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Upon immediate scrutiny, the claims made by the Center for Medical Progress began to disintegrate. Women who get abortions can elect to donate the fetal tissue to scientific research, and in the unedited version of the footage, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the subject of their first "investigative" video, says no less than ten times that Planned Parenthood does not profit from the sale of fetus parts; any money received is merely used to pay for transporting the tissue. The Center for Medical Progress has since released three more videos, all of which were similarly and immediately debunked. But it was too late—opponents of abortion and political opportunists have seized the moment and, buoyed up by mass hysteria and rage, continue to repeat the Center's talking points basically verbatim.
Republican candidates denouncing Planned Parenthood
In the aftermath of the Center for Media Progress "investigation," Mike Huckabee said he would consider sending federal troops or the FBI to stop abortions. Rick Perry called for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, saying in a statement that the organization "cuts apart and sells the body parts of dead babies." Rand Paul fast-tracked legislation to defund Planned Parenthood; Bobby Jindal launched a statewide investigation; Scott Walker said that, as president, he would cut the group's funding. In a statement, Ted Cruz called the allegations "sickening." On Twitter, Marco Rubio compared them to the shooting of Cecil the Lion.
The reality is that the Center for Medical Progress is a flimsy front set up by three anti-abortion extremists, one of whom has ties to violent radicals, including the man convicted of murdering abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. And, since the Center's founding in 2013, it has potentially violated numerous federal and state laws in its single-minded quest to malign Planned Parenthood.
The Center for Medical Progress describes itself in lofty, deceptively neutral-sounding terms. They bill themselves as "a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances," who "oppose any interventions, procedures, and experiments that exploit the unequal legal status of any class of human beings." (The "unequal legal status of any class of human beings" presumably refers to how living women are treated as humans, whereas fetuses are not.) Only one name appears on the website—David Daleiden, the Center's project lead, as well as the only speaker listed on its "Speakers" page. But that's not the full story: Its founders have an obvious political agenda.
On the Center for Medical Progress's founding documents, Daleiden is listed as chief executive officer. Two other men appear on the forms as well—Albin Rhomberg is listed as chief financial officer, and Troy Newman is listed as the group's secretary. Both Newman and Rhomberg have a well-documented history of violent, virulent anti-abortion extremism. While neither man's name appears in the press materials on the Center for Medical Progress website, a press release published on Christian Newswire states that "Troy Newman serves on the Board of Daleiden's Center for Medical Progress. During [the Planned Parenthood] investigation, Newman advised Daleiden, providing consultation services and material support."
Troy Newman is the current president of Operation Rescue, an extremist organization with an open history of violence. The group's senior policy advisor, Cheryl Sullenger, is a convicted felon who served two years for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic in 1988. Fourteen years after that, Newman moved Operation Rescue to Wichita, Kansas, for the express purpose of targeting Dr. Tiller, a provider who performed late-term abortion services until Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion radical, assassinated him at church in 2009. According to a Rolling Stone article published in 2004, after he moved to Kansas, Newman took out a full-page ad in a local Catholic paper that read, "Wichita isn't big enough for George Tiller and me."
The extremists behind Operation Rescue
Troy Newman has been aggressively harassing abortion providers for years; Cheryl Sullenger was convicting of conspiring to bomb a California abortion clinic in 1988.
Although Operation Rescue vehemently denies any connection with Roeder, Roeder told a reporter from Ms. in 2010 that he'd had lunch with Newman and asked his opinion on using violence to stop abortion. According to Roeder, when he asked Newman if it would be justified to shoot an abortionist, Newman responded, "It wouldn't upset me." The day Roeder shot Dr. Tiller, a piece of paper containing Sullenger's phone number, along with the words "Cheryl" and "Op Rescue" was found in his car.
On its website, Operation Rescue proudly advertises the Center for Medical Progress's Planned Parenthood videos; a graphic on their homepage bills the videos as "an investigative journalism study by CMP in consultation with Operation Rescue." (The same image appears on the Center for Medical Progress's page with no mention of Operation Rescue.)
In addition to running Operation Rescue, Newman has a robust online presence: According to a reverse domain name ownership database, there are 45 anti-abortion websites registered under his name and email address. One of them, AbortionDocs.org, contains a comprehensive list of 949 "abortionists" in America, alongside photos, various documents (including, in some cases, divorce complaints), clinic addresses, and phone numbers. The registrant phone number for AbortionDocs.org matches the office number listed on the Operation Rescue site. Essentially, anyone who wants to harass, stalk, or threaten an abortion doctor can find all the information they'd need here. It's a reading AbortionDocs.org itself anticipates—according to a disclaimer on the site, it "is in no way meant to encourage or incite violence of any kind against abortion clinics, abortionists, or their staff. We denounce acts of violence against abortion clinics and providers in the strongest terms."
Those on the receiving end of anti-abortion aggression find such claims disingenuous. "There is a lot of activity that Operation Rescue engages in to promote threats and violence against abortion providers," National Abortion Federation president Vicki Saporta told Broadly in a phone interview. "For them to say that they do anything different is… an outright lie."
Anti-abortion extremists have a long and storied history of doxxing and harassing providers. According to David Cohen, a lawyer and author who has extensively studied anti-abortion terrorism, such harassment takes myriad forms. "There have been stalking and trespassing and death threats [against providers]; other threats against people's safety or family; home picketing; hate mail sent to their homes; providers' kids have been followed to school and protested at school; providers' neighbors have received hate mail; a couple of providers we talked with, their parents were protested in nursing homes," he told Broadly.
"For some doctors, coming out as an abortion provider is something that they don't feel they can do safely," he said. "A website like this that gives out abortion providers' information is a way to get this information into the hands of people who might misuse it."
For an example of someone who misuses such information, look no further than the Center for Medical Progress's chief financial officer, Albin Rhomberg. Rhomberg has been aggressively harassing and intimidating both pro-choice groups and women seeking reproductive healthcare for over 20 years. In 1991, he was arrested for interrupting a religious service at the inauguration of California's then-Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican who is pro-choice, in order to scream denouncements. In 2014, a representative from Planned Parenthood of Sacramento posted a video of Rhomberg outside of the clinic, accompanied by the following text:
Once I turned off my phone, he continued to follow me for an entire city block, barely 3 feet away, filming and shouting at me about my evil work with Planned Parenthood. Albin has been filming our events for years… This isn't the first time I've been accosted by Albin - he's yelled at me inside my own church and he's followed me out to my car in a parking lot and filmed my license plate as I was driving away.
The Center for Medical Progress's criminal behavior isn't confined to the past. "There's nothing legitimate about what they claim now, that they're legitimate journalists," said Saporta. "They broke a lot of laws to obtain the footage they have."
At first glance, the Center may seem like an authentic organization: Not only is it registered with the Center with the California Registry of Charitable Trusts (RCT), the IRS also granted it tax-exempt status as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. However, none of the Center's tax forms are available online, and according to a delinquency letter sent by the California RCT on July 23, 2015, the Center for Medical Progress failed to file its annual report in both 2013 and 2014. Even more egregiously, it's possible that the Center intentionally misrepresented its purpose to the IRS. If this is proven true, it could legally constitute felony perjury.
"BioMax Procurement Services, LLC"
On its website, BioMax claimed to be "a biological specimen procurement organization headquartered in Norwalk, CA." According to records, the address it's registered to is an all-in-one shipping center.
According to a complaint filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), until at least February of this year, the Center for Medical Progress publicly billed itself as a "non-profit organization dedicated to informing and educating both the lay public and the scientific community about the latest advances in regenerative medicine, cell-based therapies, and related disciplines." In 2013, the IRS designated the Center as a "Biomedicine, Bioengineering group," indicating that this is likely how the group represented itself on IRS forms at the time.
As the CREW complaint notes, "If the Center truthfully told the IRS it intended to make and release secretly-filmed videos in an attempt to disparage providers of reproductive health services, it is highly unlikely the IRS would have assigned the Center the code for biomedicine and bioengineering." Within the IRS's charity taxonomy, there's a special designation for "Civil Rights, Social Action, Advocacy" groups, and within that a specific code for "Right to Life" organizations—something Daleiden must surely know, as that's the designation assigned to Live Action, the anti-abortion organization known for secretly filming encounters at Planned Parenthood clinics where he used to work.
The amount of effort that the Center for Medical Progress put into deceiving Planned Parenthood is staggering. In addition to registering as a charity with both the state of California and the IRS, the Center created a fake biotech company called BioMax Procurement Services, which is registered as a limited liability company (LLC) with the California Secretary of State. BioMax had its own logo and website (which is now password protected); operatives from the Center of Medical Progress posing as BioMax employees had their own business cards and fake identities. By posing as a legitimate tissue procurement company for two years, Daleiden and his associates were able to infiltrate two annual meetings of the National Abortion Federation (NAF) as well as at least three Planned Parenthood meetings, according to a recent lawsuit filed by the NAF.
Because abortion providers face severe and constant threats, the NAF must hold its annual meetings in secret, according to Saporta. In order to be allowed admittance, attendees must promise that they have a legitimate interest in reaching reproductive healthcare professionals. They must also sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in which they consent to not videotape or record at the meeting and acknowledge that all information learned at the meetings is confidential and cannot be disclosed without NAF's consent. In some of the recordings already published online by the Center for Medical Progress, Daleiden openly violates that NDA, referencing information he learned at the event and explicitly naming doctors with whom he spoke.
According to the NAF's complaint, several of the NAF's members now suspect that Daleiden was recording their conversations—which would violate state laws. According to Saporta, the 2013 NAF meeting was held in San Francisco, and in 2014 the gathering was held in Baltimore. Both California and Maryland have two-party consent laws in place: In those states, it's illegal to record a private conversation without first obtaining the consent of all parties to that conversation. In all, Saporta said, the NAF has filed 14 legal claims against the Center for Medical Progress.
With each deceptively edited tape the Center for Medical Progress releases, it puts abortion providers at substantial risk. Already, the subjects of the Center's previous undercover videos have faced graphic, targeted death threats and had their personal information published online (no doubt with help from resources like AbortionDocs.org). According to the NAF complaint, one poster wrote, "I'll pay ten large to whomever kills Dr. Deborah Nucatola. Anyone go for it." Another poster said that the CEO of StemExpress, a legitimate tissue procurement company, "should be hung by the neck using piano wire" before going on to post the CEO's home address, adding, "I'm going there… I'll pay ten grand to whomever beats me to [CEO]… [CEO] must die to save the innocents."
"It would be one thing if all that happened was that people peacefully protested outside of clinics," said Saporta. "But that's not what's happening, and that's not the history of what's happened. In my tenure at NAF, I have gotten two phone calls saying that my members were murdered. Another was stabbed and shot and survived. I never want to get one of those phone calls again. The threat is real."
Anti-abortion extremists' tactics may change, but their goal remains the same: to abolish women's access to safe and legal reproductive care through whatever channels are available. Lacking the ability to achieve their goals politically, extremists have long been resorting to violence, threats, targeted harassment campaigns, and intentionally disseminating misinformation about their opponents. And we're letting them do it.
"This is somebody who's on a mission to destroy abortion providers, to make abortion unavailable and inaccessible in the United States," said Saporta. "Their goals are clear, and their tactics are abhorrent. They broke the law, and somebody has to hold them responsible."
Despite the fact that Operation Rescue—a known extremist group with alleged ties to Dr. Tiller's murder—is openly and proudly associated with the Planned Parenthood "investigative videos," and despite the fact that these videos have been roundly criticized as both deceptively edited and possibly illegally obtained, politicians are still rallying around them. Republican candidates are tripping over themselves to denounce Planned Parenthood's purported barbarism, and the Senate will vote today on whether Planned Parenthood should be stripped of federal funding.
This is the reality of reproductive rights in 2015: A man with a criminal record who spends his days terrorizing Planned Parenthood employees and an anti-abortion extremist who employs a woman who attempted to firebomb a clinic can hide behind some unbelievably shoddy paperwork, violating numerous laws in the process, and still have their distorted facts parroted by people who are seeking candidacy for the presidency of the United States.