WHEN HARRIS ASSUMED HER ROLE as attorney general of California, abortion-related issues weren’t foreign to the office, but they took center stage after Daleiden began releasing his undercover videos regarding research companies paying fees to Planned Parenthood for aborted baby parts.
In July 2015, the Center for Medical Progress released its first undercover videos, showing California Planned Parenthood officials discussing how to obtain the optimal specimens from abortions.
One official mentioned being willing to ask an abortionist to use a “less crunchy” method to preserve an aborted baby’s body parts for later use by medical researchers. The official said she wasn’t in it for the money, but she did negotiate potential fees for specimens. She joked: “I want a Lamborghini.”
Federal law prohibits the sale-for-profit of fetal tissue. It also prohibits abortionists from altering an abortion method in order to obtain human tissue for the purpose of medical research. Planned Parenthood denies both charges, but the videos raised searing questions about the abortion provider’s practices.
Still, the questions quickly turned on Daleiden and whether his method of recording the videos violated California privacy laws. Daleiden’s attorneys say emails show that Planned Parenthood officials reached out to the attorney general’s office and a March 2016 meeting included Harris and Planned Parenthood officials. Two weeks later, agents from Harris’ office raided Daleiden’s apartment and seized computer equipment with videos and other work-related material.
Cooley and Daleiden’s other attorneys contend Harris likely greenlighted the investigation at least in part because of her political connections to Planned Parenthood.
The group’s PAC had donated to her Senate campaign, and during the same week that agents raided Daleiden’s home, a page on Harris’ Senate campaign website urged supporters to sign a petition to “Defend Planned Parenthood” against a loss of federal funds.
Daleiden’s attorneys say Harris and other political appointees in her office should have recused themselves from the deliberations over an investigation related to Planned Parenthood.
The attorneys also note the argument that Daleiden violated state law by recording conversations without the knowledge of Planned Parenthood didn’t seem to apply when other activists and journalists conducted undercover investigations that included video recordings.
In 2013, the group Mercy for Animals published videos of an undercover investigation into animal cruelty at a California farm. In 2015, Harris’ office appealed a California judge’s decision to allow farmers to continue the practice of force-feeding ducks to produce foie gras. The animal rights group heralded Harris’ move.
A few months later, Daleiden released his first videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing how abortionists determine where to crush an unborn baby in order to kill the child but preserve his or her organs. Daleiden still faces 15 felony charges brought by Harris’ successor.
As Daleiden’s criminal case winds its way through the courts, he’s filed a civil lawsuit naming Harris and other California officials he says violated his civil rights by conducting “a brazen, unprecedented, and ongoing conspiracy to selectively use California’s video recording laws as a political weapon to silence disfavored speech.”
HARRIS’ DISFAVOR FOR PRO-LIFE VIEWS isn’t a secret in Washington. In the Senate, she co-sponsored the Women’s Health Protection Act—legislation designed “to protect a woman’s ability to determine whether or when to bear a child or end a pregnancy.”
Among other provisions, the bill would invalidate any law prohibiting an abortion “after fetal viability when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating physician, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant woman’s health or life.” The provision doesn’t specify whether mental health could be a reason to allow a late-term abortion.
“We cannot tolerate a perspective that is about going backward. … On this issue, I’m kind of done.”
During her bid for the Democratic nomination, Harris unveiled a plan to require some states to obtain preclearance from the federal government before enacting new abortion laws.
“We cannot tolerate a perspective that is about going backward and not understanding that women have agency, women have value, women have the authority to make decisions about their own lives and their own bodies,” Harris said at an MSNBC town hall.
“On this issue, I’m kind of done.”
The issue spilled over into the acrimonious confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Harris, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Kavanaugh, “Can you think of any laws that give the government power to make decisions about the male body?” (Kavanaugh said no.)
Harris’ work on the same committee brought up questions about her views on religious liberty later the same year.
During hearings on the nomination of Brian Buescher as a district judge in Nebraska, Harris questioned the nominee about his participation in the Knights of Columbus, a charitable Catholic organization. Harris specifically asked whether Buescher knew about the group’s opposition to gay marriage when he joined, and she inquired about whether he had ever opposed abortion.
The Senate eventually confirmed Buescher, and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., successfully urged fellow senators to vote to affirm the constitutional clause forbidding religious tests for public officeholders.
Early last year, Harris reintroduced the Do No Harm Act—legislation that would strip religious liberty protections in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Harris said “the freedom to worship” is a fundamental right, but that the First Amendment shouldn’t be used to “undermine other Americans’ civil rights or subject them to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Thomas Jipping of the Heritage Foundation noted that the Constitution protects the “free exercise” of religion, and the Do No Harm bill “seeks to dilute the substance of religious freedom to nothing more than speech or private worship and to reduce its significance to nothing more, and often less, than other political priorities.”
Jipping noted that RFRA doesn’t settle conflicts between the government and how people exercise religion in their daily lives, but the law dictates that courts must sort out such disputes. He said the Do No Harm bill would “deny anyone the chance to argue that the government ever goes too far. The government would always win.”
Heading into the final stretch of the election season, Harris will try to introduce herself to more voters who are starting to pay closer attention to the contests. She may also lean into her past record and into the L.L. Cool J song her campaign played when she walked into earlier campaign events: “Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years.”
—Read part 2 of this issue’s cover story package: “Following the chain of command”