Whatever the outcome, Daleiden’s project has already exceeded the wildest expectations of antiabortion activists. He has released 10 videos from clinic visits, Planned Parenthood meetings and lunches with executives, and put the abortion issue back on the front burner in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail.
The slim young man with the Clark Kent glasses mingled easily at the conference of abortion providers. By day, he sat quietly in his company’s booth, under a sign festooned with a burbling lab flask. By night, he schmoozed with presenters at the swanky hotel bar.
If people noticed that he seemed a bit stiff, they tended to write it off as an odd physical tic. In fact, David Daleiden was probably trying to keep his hidden camera straight.
Daleiden, 26, is the antiabortion activist who masterminded the recent undercover campaign aimed at proving that Planned Parenthood illegally sells what he calls aborted “baby body parts.” He captured intimate details of the famously guarded organization, hobnobbing at conferences so secretive that they require background checks and talking his way into a back laboratory at a Colorado clinic where he picked through the remains of aborted fetuses and displayed them luridly for the camera.
Daleiden’s videos landed like a bomb in Washington this summer, providing fodder for a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders and energizing social conservatives on Capitol Hill. They also shed harsh new light on the venerable women’s health organization, capturing officials sipping wine while joking about abortion and appearing to haggle over the price of fetal tissue.
This week, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards announced that the group would continue to donate tissue for medical research but would no longer accept compensation for storing and delivering the specimens. She said the organization has done nothing wrong but decided to take this step to disarm its critics.
Daleiden, characteristically, saw things in darker tones.
“It’s pretty much an admission of guilt,” he said this week.
Before emerging as the biggest star in the antiabortion firmament, Daleiden had long been a bit player. A Catholic and Southern California native who drives a Honda hybrid, Daleiden calls himself an investigative journalist and credits his California public school education with fomenting in him a passion for human rights.
At the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington late last month, Daleiden wore his signature dark blazer and skinny black tie and a pair of “Nightmare Before Christmas” socks. During a break, he described himself as the result of a “crisis pregnancy,” born while his parents were in their junior year of college.
“I always grew up with the understanding that some people have kids in less than fully intended situations and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
At 15, he said, he Googled images of aborted fetuses — an exploration that cemented his antiabortion views. While studying at Claremont McKenna College, he began fixating on Planned Parenthood. He got a job with Live Action, an antiabortion nonprofit group led by a fellow millennial that made its name by mounting undercover “stings” against Planned Parenthood. In 2009, Daleiden was kicked off the neighboring Pomona College campus after aggressively questioning a Planned Parenthood official who had been invited to speak.
And something else happened in college: While on assignment for a professor, Daleiden wound up at a conference on stem cell research where a presenter mentioned that the results of her work had been drawn from the brains of aborted fetuses.
“I thought, wait, did I hear that right?” he recalled.
His horror stuck with him for years, as did what he sees as a cruel paradox — that when it comes to a fetus, “its humanity isn’t considered valid, yet it’s precisely that same humanity that makes it valuable for experimentation.”
He soon began to hatch an audacious plan to infiltrate Planned Parenthood to its very senior reaches. He pulled the trigger in 2013.