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Saturday, October 21, 2017

When anti-abortion activists began a fraudulent “sting” operation against Planned Parenthood, they surely had no idea that it would lead to this: criminal indictments against their own plotters. This is one of the best instances of retributive justice to hit the political scene in decades.

The anti-abortion crowd who carried out this campaign certainly deserve what they got. They set out to use lies, deception and, it turns out, allegedly illegal acts not just to embarrass Planned Parenthood but also to cripple it — to turn the organization, which is one of the nation’s leading providers of women’s reproductive health services, into such a pariah that its funding would dry up. Instead, the schemers have been exposed as the liars and frauds that they are.

Their deception was in keeping with the long and tawdry history of the anti-abortion crusade, which has used falsehoods and misinformation to try to prevent women from having access to safe and legal abortions. Activists have claimed that abortion is linked to breast cancer. (It isn’t.) They have insisted that abortion leads to long-term mental anguish. (There are no data to support that claim.) And some have even said that there is no reason to include exceptions for rape and incest in any abortion restrictions, since rape cannot lead to pregnancy. (That’s just nonsense.)

This particular episode of right-wing overreach hit the airwaves last year, when an anti-abortion activist named David Daleiden, director of the so-called Center for Medical Progress, released videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood employees selling fetal tissue retrieved from abortions, which is illegal. He claimed the videos showed “a criminal conspiracy to make money off of aborted baby parts.”

But, like other so-called stings by ultraconservative “citizen-journalists,” this operation did not depend on fairness, accuracy or transparency. Instead, the videos were heavily edited and sometimes doctored to give the appearance of wrongdoing.

Of course, that didn’t stop conservative politicians from pouncing on the opportunity to show their support for Daleiden’s efforts. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, dove headfirst into the miasma of Daleiden’s lies, suggesting during a September debate that she had seen video footage of “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'”

No such video exists, and PolitiFact later ruled Fiorina’s dramatic tale “mostly false.”

Some Republican hard-liners in Congress, including presidential contender Ted Cruz, insisted that their party should shut down the government rather than assent to a budget that included funding for Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, several investigations were launched into Planned Parenthood’s alleged perfidy. Multiple states, from Kansas to Georgia to Massachusetts, conducted probes, as did three congressional committees. None — not one — of the investigations turned up any wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.

Indeed, Harris County (Houston), Texas, also convened a grand jury to investigate Planned Parenthood. But in a stunning irony, the grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood and instead returned criminal indictments against Daleiden on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and on a misdemeanor charge related to purchasing human organs. A second anti-abortion activist, Sandra S. Merritt, was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record. (Both felony charges involve making fake driver’s licenses to fool Planned Parenthood employees about their actual identities.)

If supporters of Daleiden and Merritt try to persuade you this is some partisan smear, know that the Harris County prosecutor who convened the grand jury is a Republican, Devon Anderson, who has described herself as “pro-life.” “As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us,” she told reporters.

Not that the anti-abortionists are giving up. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced that their separate investigations would continue. They are as relentless as their partisan colleagues in Congress have been in investigating Benghazi — and similarly unsuccessful.

But finding evidence of genuine criminal wrongdoing was never the goal of these investigations. Instead, ultraconservatives who crusade against reproductive rights are animated by a desire to turn back the clock to a time when women had little control over their own bodies. Their critics have dubbed this a “war on women” for good reason.

(Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo: Protesters stand on a sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Vista, California August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake