It is illegal in the U.S. to sell body parts. So the release of undercover videos last summer purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating fees for tissue from aborted fetuses launched a flurry of federal and state investigations into the healthcare provider. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives was the fourth congressional entry into this overcrowded field, but its mandate is far broader than just looking into Planned Parenthood — it can investigate the entities that procure fetal tissue and look into federal funding and support for abortion providers. It is also authorized to scrutinize the providers of second- and third-term abortions (even though later-term abortions are already highly regulated).
Toward those ends, the panel has requested documents from more than 30 groups, and last month it issued subpoenas to three institutions it deemed uncooperative with earlier requests: the University of New Mexico, where research is done using fetal tissue; an Albuquerque abortion clinic called Southwestern Women's Options; and StemExpress, which provides human tissue to biomedical researchers. The sweeping subpoenas requested five years' worth of documentation on fetal tissue acquisitions, bank records, and the names of people involved in the businesses. The university and abortion clinic were also required to provide names of personnel involved in abortion procedures. Now, the panel is preparing to issue 17 more subpoenas, according to its ranking Democrat, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who has decried the work of the Republican members as a “partisan witch hunt.”
It's legitimate for a congressional committee to look into allegations of wrongdoing. But this panel — which is chaired by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), an opponent of abortion rights who has worked hard to defund Planned Parenthood — has raised alarm bells by seeking the names of people involved in legal enterprises, namely, providing abortions and collecting fetal tissue for research. If the main goal of the subpoenas is to expose people in these fields to harassment and intimidation, Blackburn should stop now.
Legally donated fetal tissue has played a significant role in cutting-edge research, including Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injury and kidney failure. The purpose of the panel was not to weigh in on the ethics of abortion but to investigate allegations of illegal practices. So far, all the governmental inquiries that preceded this panel's — by 12 state agencies, three congressional committees, and a grand jury in Texas — have found no evidence that Planned Parenthood was profiting from fetal tissue. This panel's work, so far, looks only like grandstanding.