Did Court Testimony Prove a Biotech Company Harvests Organs from Live Fetuses?

Among other issues, a troubling headline about "beating baby hearts" resulted in accusations of witness intimidation.

  • Published 12 September 2019

Claim

Court testimony proved that a biotech company harvests organs from live fetuses.

Rating

Origin

The anti-abortion website LifeSite published a story containing a headline that said the CEO of the biotech company StemExpress admitted in court to “selling beating baby hearts, intact baby heads.” That headline was not only false, but it presented a security risk to a witness in a criminal trial, according to a report from an investigator with the California state Department of Justice.

The LifeSite story is based on an ongoing preliminary hearing in the criminal case against David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, the anti-abortion activists behind the making of controversial, heavily edited “sting” videos targeting Planned Parenthood in 2015.

The videos, which were produced by Daleiden’s non-profit organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP), attempted unsuccessfully to show that Planned Parenthood was illegally trafficking in fetal tissue. But while Planned Parenthood was cleared in resulting investigations, Daleidon and Merritt were criminally charged and are currently facing 15 counts of felony invasion of privacy in California.

The LifeSite story presents readers with a horror movie-like scenario taken, as it claims, from the testimony of a woman the court identifies only as “Doe 12” but whom LifeSite says is the “CEO of StemExpress”: Beating hearts are being snatched out of live babies in an organ-harvesting scheme. It’s a sensational, graphic claim that reflects cultural tropes. But it’s not true.

The gist of the story can be distilled from a quote by Peter Breen, an attorney from the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal-activist organization, which is representing Daleiden pro bono.

“If you have a fetus with an intact head and an intact body, and intact extremities, that is something that would indicate that child was born alive, and then had their organs cut out of them, or that that child was the victim of an illegal partial-birth abortion,” Breen told LifeSite.

Our efforts to reach Breen about this comment were unsuccessful. But here’s what the LifeSite story reports in support of that comment:

Breen told the court that StemExpress was mentioned in connection with Stanford University studies where Langendorff perfusion was used, a technique that “requires a beating heart.”

“Does StemExpress supply fetal hearts to Stanford?” he asked Doe 12.

She hesitated to answer because, she said, “there’s so much targeting of researchers.”

However, Judge Christopher Hite told her the question was relevant.

“Yes, we have provided heart tissue to Stanford,” Doe 12 said.

She also admitted that CMP photos are accurate and that sometimes a baby’s intact calvarium is attached to the baby’s body and sometimes it is not.

It’s a leap to claim that supplying heart tissue to Stanford, “where Langendorff perfusion was used,” means that StemExpress supplied beating hearts to the university. In fact, the claim betrays an ignorance of what the Langendorff perfusion is when it is applied in the context of stem cell research.

We spoke to one researcher whose work has involved fetal heart stem cells as well as the Langerdorff perfusion technique. This researcher, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic, explained to us that there are two basic ways a Langerdorff perfusion is used. While one way does involve getting a heart to beat directly after it has been removed from a laboratory animal, the method that is relevant for stem cell research does not. The latter approach uses enzymes to digest away tissue to isolate heart stem cells. These hearts do not arrive at the lab “beating,” the scientist told us, nor could they be made to beat again, given the time it takes to transport the tissue.

Similarly, researchers sometimes work with fetal brain tissue to research neurological problems with stem cells. Though it is certainly possible, fully intact fetal heads are uncommon in the samples that arrive for work in research samples. While we do not know what specific testimony led to the discussion of intact fetal heads, its alleged mention in court is not evidence of an illegal partial-birth abortion.

State laws vary, but in California, consent is required prior to the donation of fetal tissue, and it is illegal to profit from fetal donation or procurement.

State prosecutors had requested the judge in Daleidon and Merritt’s criminal case issue a gag order barring their attorneys from speaking to the media, stating that Doe 12 has been subject to intimidation and threats as a result of her testimony. Prosecutors cited Breen’s “inaccurate” portrayal of her testimony in the LifeSite story as well as the CMP Twitter account that has live-tweeted the hearing and identified unnamed witnesses by giving their organizations and job titles.

Doe 12 filed a report with the California Department of Justice alleging that after her Sept. 5, 2019, testimony, a woman pulled up alongside her as she drove home, screamed at her, filmed her, and attempted to collide with her vehicle. The investigator also wrote that one of Doe 12’s neighbors had seen a car parked near her home on several occasions during the hearings and believed someone was “casing” Doe 12’s home.

“Doe 12 also provided me with a Life Site News link to an article with the heading, ‘StemExpress CEO admits selling beating baby hearts, intact baby heads in Daleiden hearing,'” California DOJ Special Agent Brian Caldwell wrote. “This statement is false and further increases security risk to Doe 12.”

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite denied the prosecution’s request for a gag order, citing the attorney’s First Amendment rights and noting that prosecutors had failed to show a connection between the alleged harassment and statements made by Daleiden’s attorney. But the judge also stated that anyone caught intimidating a witness would be prosecuted.

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