WASHINGTON (AFP) - A Texas grand jury investigating allegations that a US abortion provider sold organs of aborted foetuses instead indicted two anti-abortion activists who secretly filmed the group, officials said Monday (Jan 25).
The grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood - a nationwide women's health network - of all wrongdoing.
Instead they indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, members of the anti-abortion Centre for Medical Progress, for tampering with a government record, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years prison.
It also charged Daleiden with a misdemeanor count relating to the claim he accused Planned Parenthood of being engaged in - the purchase of human organs.
Access to abortion is a hot-button political issue in the United States, especially during a presidential election year, even though for years national polls show a majority support for legal abortion.
In a series of undercover videos shot mostly by the anti-abortion activists, Planned Parenthood employees discuss providing body parts taken from aborted foetuses for use in medical research.
In their ruse, Daleiden and Merritt claimed to work for a company that buys tissue from aborted foetuses. They created a fake website and allegedly obtained fake government identification cards.
Planned Parenthood admits to having fallen prey to the ruse, but says its doctors were merely explaining the process of how foetal tissue is collected and distributed for research purposes, and were never engaged in selling human organs.
The undercover videos, which Planned Parenthood says were deceptively edited, fired up anti-abortion conservatives, especially conservative Republicans in Congress who voted to withdraw any federal money from Planned Parenthood.
"We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast," Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said in a statement.
"As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us. All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case."
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, an abortion opponent, stressed that the grand jury decision would not impact the state's own investigation into the case.
"The state of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of foetal tissue," said Mr Abbott, a Republican.
The newspaper USA Today published an op-ed article by Daleiden on Monday in which he claims that Planned Parenthood and federal law governing abortions "were never in step with the American people and are now completely out of touch with public attitudes."
Earlier in January Planned Parenthood said it was suing the activists in federal court on charges of conspiracy and fraud.
According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 50 per cent of the US public described themselves as pro-choice - supporting the right to legal abortion - and 44 per cent say they are pro-life.