News

Election Class of 2016: David Daleiden Is Revolutionizing Anti-Abortion Activism

The man behind the fetal tissue video is having an outsized impact on the 2016 presidential race.

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl

Illustration by Drew Lerman

[Editor's Note: In the run-up to the 2016 election, VICE will be profiling the individuals who are important to the presidential race. Some of them are famous, others you probably won't have heard of before—but all of them will have an outsize impact on how the country decides its future.]

Who is he? David Daleiden, 26, anti-abortion activist, hidden-camera investigator, and founder of an organization called The Center for Medical Progress.

Do you know him? No. But if you've recently used either one of the hashtags #DefundPP or #StandWithPP then you're participating in the firestorm ignited by Daleiden's creation, "Human Capital." That was the name of the video he released back in July, which claimed to prove that Planned Parenthood was selling fetus body parts for profit.

Is he effective? Depends what you mean by "effective." In the immediate aftermath of the video's release, House Republicans launched an investigation into possible misdeeds committed by Planned Parenthood staff members. That investigation has involved congressional hearings, including one in which Planned Parenthood's president appeared in person to face down the politicians who most vehemently oppose everything she stands for.

But while the bill that stopped the government shutdown contains no funding for Planned Parenthood, technically speaking, that bill also won't defund Planned Parenthood either. Moreover, it looks increasingly like Planned Parenthood could bounce back from all this and emerge from the whole fetal tissue debacle with its funding intact.

Still, champions of the anti-abortion cause haven't been this energized in years—and that's largely thanks to Daleiden's efforts. His videos have moved the abortion debate back to the top of the Republican Party's agenda, at a time when the GOP Establishment was trying to move away from the Culture Wars. Expect Republican candidates to whip themselves into a frenzy over this until the national conventions, to the gleeful delight of Democrats who know they can spend the rest of the election dining out on liberal outrage over the "War on Women."

Why does he matter? Before Daleiden came along, standard-issue anti-abortion activism had become maudlin and irritating at best—think bumper stickers and picket signs with nauseating photos.

Not too long ago, such activism tended to give way to straight-up terrorism: the first murder of an abortion doctor in the US occurred in 1993, and sparked a series of successful and unsuccessful shooting incidents and clinic bombings throughout the 1990s; the most recent incident occurred in 2009, with the murder of Kansas City abortion doctor George Tiller. Since then, though, abortion activists have realized that the violence was creating martyrs, and the tactics have largely fallen out of favor.

By contrast, David Daleiden comes off as clear-eyed, smart, and relatively rational. He refers to himself as a "citizen journalist" in the press kit available on the Center for Medical Progress' website. The site itself is written in clear, unsentimental terms. "We are concerned about contemporary bioethical issues that impact human dignity, and we oppose any interventions, procedures, and experiments that exploit the unequal legal status of any class of human beings," his organization's About Us page says.

He's occasionally been in hot water for making himself a nuisance at Planned Parenthood clinics beginning in 2009, but has no apparent record of committing actual crimes, or of harming anyone. In fact, his personal and professional history are pretty boring, with his past teachers referring to him in terms like "bright and able," and calling one of his papers on abortion a "tour de force."

With Daleiden's help, conservatives have taken back some of the rhetorical authority they ceded to liberals long ago. Opposition to abortion was recently viewed purely as an emotional or religious objection, and part of that "War on Women." Now Republicans seeking the nomination are embracing the abortion issue with gusto, believing, perhaps for the first time, that they can put Democrats on defense.

Who likes him? While Daleiden may be Clark Kent-level squeaky clean, the same can hardly be said of some of his most ardent supporters. Troy Newman, one of the co-founders of The Center for Medical Progress was one of the activists who singled out George Tiller, and tracked his locations before he was murdered. Another of Daleiden's biggest fans is the doxxing-happy conservative blogger Chuck C. Johnson. "David's not just a friend; he's a great friend," Johnson wrote in a blog post about their college years. Apparently Daleiden is singlehandedly responsible for Johnson's conversion to Catholicism, and also for changing his mind about abortion.

More importantly, though, the Republicans running for president like him. No one has been more outspoken in her admiration for his project than surging 2016 hopeful Carly Fiorina, although she got some of the facts wrong when she referenced "a fully formed fetus on the table, with its heart beating, its legs kicking."

Nearly every Republican candidate weighed in on Daleiden's video shortly after it debuted, but none seems as changed by it as is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie cut funding for women's health in 2010, but blamed the economic crisis, rather than any deep-seated beliefs. By September of 2015, though, Christie seemed more enthusiastically pro-life than the visiting pope, releasing an abortion-centric TV commercial in which he calls every life a "precious gift from God."

Who opposes him? As you might expect, the folks at Planned Parenthood don't care for him much. In a press statement released shortly after the "Human Capital" was released, the reproductive health nonprofit accurately referred to the Center for Medical Progress as "a well funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood's mission," and referred to Daleiden's work as "a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape."

Editorial departments at seemingly every left-leaning newspaper have also denounced Daleiden and his video. The New York Times called "Human Capital" a "dishonest attempt to make legal, voluntary and potentially lifesaving tissue donations appear nefarious and illegal." The Los Angeles Times called their narrative a "total crock." The Washington Post said they were waging a "propaganda campaign."

What's his next move? In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Daleiden made it sound as though it's going to be a while before there's another big hidden camera investigation. After all, he spent 30 months in deep cover making "Human Capital." For the time being, it sounds like he's just waiting for the ensuing investigations to play out—and perhaps make him a legend, should they go his way. But that might take a while. "Baby-parts trafficking is really complex and multi-layered," he told Bloomberg.

Still, Daleiden may well pop up again during the 2016 election as the personification of a new, more intellectual pro-life position. Much as Joe the Plumber added some much-needed color to the discussion of taxes during the 2008 presidential race, Daleiden could show up on the campaign trail and ambush Democrats. Liberal politicians and their supporters are used to falling back on feminism when cornered about the abortion issue, and their arguments can usually be boiled down to a "woman's right to choose." Now they'll have an opponent who can coldly recite some facts about fetal development, and if they're not ready for him, it might get them all befuddled in YouTube-friendly ways.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

Illustration by Drew Lerman. Follow him on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels