In 2015, an undercover sting led to the release of a series of videos that appeared to show top Planned Parenthood leadership engaged in the sale of aborted fetal body parts. The videos led to a large public outcry and a string of congressional and state inquiries into the embattled abortion provider followed, many of which are rumbling on to the present day.
California’s attorney general at the time happened to be the now-Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. Her behavior in response to this case raises some deep concerns about her suitability for high office.
First, she declined to investigate any potential illegal activity on the part of Planned Parenthood, instead choosing to throw the book at those behind the sting. The Center for Medical Progress and its founder, David Daleiden, were soon at the center of a criminal investigation ordered by Harris, which included a raid on Daleiden’s home — seizing his camera equipment and hard drives.
Two years after the videos’ release, California’s prosecutors charged Daleiden and an associate with 15 felonies for filming Planned Parenthood staff without their permission – the only known instance of undercover journalists being criminally prosecuted in California history. Some of the charges have since been whittled away, but the trial is set to continue.
However, when it emerged that Planned Parenthood and its associates had donated over $80,000 to Harris’s political campaigns — both for attorney general and for a seat in the Senate — there was outrage over the flagrant conflict of interest. Pro-life campaigners pointed out that, in the same year, Harris’s department had praised undercover animal-rights activists for their investigations into abuse in the poultry industry.
Things took a more serious turn in May of this year when David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress filed a complaint in Federal Court, arguing that Harris and others had violated the US Constitution by selectively using California’s laws as a political weapon to silence their speech. Among other uncomfortable revelations, the complaint alleges that Harris secretly met Planned Parenthood representatives in person just prior to the raid on Daleiden’s home.
The case will have the Trump campaign team rubbing their hands with glee. While progressives probably won’t be too concerned by Harris’s overt hostility against a group that opposes abortion, they might be less enthusiastic about Harris’s refusal to investigate police shootings in San Francisco after the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, for instance.
Being the attorney general of California was certainly the making of Harris’s political career, but as the decisions she made then are judged in the light of 2020, it may also be her greatest weakness. It is hard to know exactly what Harris stands for. Yet cases such as these mean she will be haunted by accusations of hypocrisy and cronyism for the duration of the presidential campaign and beyond.
Laurence Wilkinson is an English human rights lawyer based in Nashville, Tennessee.