Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

In some surprising news out of Houston, we’ve now learned the conclusion of a grand jury impaneled to decide whether Planned Parenthood should be indicted for selling fetal tissue, based on the videos released last year by a group called the Center for Medical Progress, whose members had posed as medical researchers seeking fetal tissue for research. Not only did the grand jury choose not to indict Planned Parenthood, they decided that crimes may have been committed — but by the anti-abortion activists of the CMP.

And so this case provides a rather fitting metaphor for the way conservatives have acted on the broader issue of abortion rights — their zealotry, their contempt for the women who need abortions, and their mistaken assumption that the public will be behind them no matter how far they go.

Here’s the report from Houston:

A Houston grand jury that was investigating accusations of criminal misconduct against Planned Parenthood on Monday instead indicted the leader of an anti-abortion group that recorded covert videos of the organization’s employees.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said David Daleiden, the director of the Center for Medical Progress, faces a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and a misdemeanor count related to buying human tissue.

Sandra Merritt, one of Daleiden’s employees, was also indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record.

According to the D.A. (who, by the way, is a Republican), the CMP employees created fake California driver’s licenses in order to gain access to a Planned Parenthood facility under false names. The misdemeanor charge for Daleiden stems from an email he sent to Planned Parenthood, offering to buy fetal tissue for $1,600. According to the law, a health provider like Planned Parenthood can be reimbursed for its costs in collecting fetal tissue, but can’t make a profit.

The fact that Daleiden is charged with a crime in connection with an attempted purchase of fetal tissue, while the Planned Parenthood representatives are not, shows what was evident from the videos: as hard as the CMP infiltrators tried to get the Planned Parenthood officials to say they’re profiting from fetal tissue transfers, they failed. As Sarah Kliff wrote after watching the footage:

“This is a consistent theme throughout the 12 hours of video footage: Planned Parenthood officials emphasize, repeatedly, that they do not see fetal tissue as a revenue stream, nor do they intend to make money off of fetal tissue procurement…In the tapes I watched, Planned Parenthood officials never started the conversation about price; it was always something the buyers brought up.”

In fact, in one conversation the Planned Parenthood official cites a figure for reimbursement of costs — $75 for obtaining a tissue sample — and the fake buyer tries to get her to take more money, which is not how a negotiation between a buyer and seller usually goes.

The Center for Medical Progress claims that they just did the same thing that investigative journalists do. That isn’t strictly true even in the broadest terms — going undercover to get a story is an extremely rare technique of investigative journalism, though from time to time it has been done. But more to the point, even actual journalists can’t break the law, then claim they shouldn’t be held accountable because they’re pursuing a story. You might believe that falsifying government records is a minor crime, but that’s a question for the sentencing phase.

So once again, an investigation of Planned Parenthood in relation to the alleged sale of fetal tissue has found no wrongdoing on the organization’s part. After the release of the videos last year, state after state launched investigations, as did Republicans in Congress, and the result was the same every time: whether you like abortion or not, and whether you like fetal tissue research or not, Planned Parenthood didn’t violate any laws.

But let’s be honest. From the beginning, it was obvious that the use of fetal tissue in research as a stand-alone issue was something conservatives don’t particularly care about; its only purpose was that it provided a means to attack Planned Parenthood. They hadn’t been worked up about fetal tissue research before (indeed, some Republicans had in the past voted to allow it), and you may have noticed that they haven’t advocated outlawing fetal tissue research since the videos were released. They don’t hate Planned Parenthood because it provides fetal tissue to medical researchers, they hate Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions, because it’s unapologetic about advocating for women’s reproductive rights, and oh yeah, because through its political affiliate it supports Democrats.

So this case wound up much like the Republican effort to “defund” Planned Parenthood, which was an attempt to ban women using Medicaid from receiving medical services like cancer screening and gynecological exams at their clinics (no federal funds can go to abortions, so that wasn’t at issue). That’s a goal that Republicans have periodically pursued, and when the CMP videos were released, they thought they finally had their chance. Some even proposed shutting down the government unless they got the organization defunded. But they quickly found that despite their belief that they had finally proven Planned Parenthood’s villainy, the public was not behind them. Polls showed that around six in ten Americans opposed their defunding plan (see here or here), no matter how many times Republicans lied about what the videos contained. The public may be evenly split on abortion (depending on what question you’re asking), but they don’t want to cut off women’s access to health care, and they actually think pretty highly of Planned Parenthood. So the defunding effort was dropped.

In the presidential race, though, Republican candidates are appealing only to their party’s base. All the candidates agree that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and all want to ban Planned Parenthood from getting Medicaid reimbursements. The only thing that separates them is whether, after abortion is banned, they would allow abortions in cases of rape and incest. The field is divided about half and half on this question, with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum among those who say there should be no exceptions.

So naturally, the candidates will be condemning the Houston D.A.’s decision in the Center for Medical Progress case. Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have already spoken out about it, expressing their dismay that Planned Parenthood was not indicted, and others will surely follow. That may be what primary voters want to hear, but it’s also something the Democratic nominee will probably bring up in the fall, confident that most voters won’t agree.