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Congressional witch hunt for 'baby body part' sellers needs to end

Congressional witch hunt for 'baby body part' sellers needs to end
Planned Parenthood Action Council holds a community rally at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Aug. 25, 2015. (Leah Hogsten / Salt Lake Tribune)

When a congressional panel investigating the procurement of fetal tissue from abortion clinics was formed last fall, its Republican leader and members made no secret of their mission to expose businesses that "sell baby body parts." (They even said as much on their website.) Their inquiry was inspired by hidden-camera videos (later discredited) that supposedly showed Planned Parenthood officials negotiating over payments for harvested fetal tissue. It's illegal in the U.S. to profit from the sale of fetal tissue — payments are limited to the cost of collecting and handling it — so if the committee actually found organizations doing that, it would be legitimate to bust them.

But so far that hasn't happened. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives has yet to find any proof that anyone is selling or buying fetal tissue. After months of investigation and subpoenas for staggering amounts of records — including, most troublingly, the names of people involved in performing abortions and procuring fetal tissue — the chairman and Republican members of the panel released an 88-page interim report this month that is long on innuendo but remarkably short on revelation.

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One of the panel's main findings is actually just speculation: that the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center may have violated federal law when it awarded faculty positions (without pay but with some benefits) to staff doctors at a local abortion clinic at a time when the clinic was providing fetal tissue for research being done at the school, raising the specter of a quid pro quo. The report also alleges that the school and the clinic violated a New Mexico state law governing anatomical gifts that, the report asserts, prohibits aborted fetal tissue from being donated or received.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives has yet to find any proof that anyone is selling or buying fetal tissue.


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The school has categorically denied both allegations — and noted that the fetal tissue it acquires is used for research on premature babies. The school also contends that the panel is misreading state law. Nonetheless, the panel formally referred the matter to the New Mexico state attorney general, whose office is looking into it.

The panel has also asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate whether technicians from a fetal tissue company, StemExpress, violated patient confidentiality laws by looking at medical records of patients at clinics where its technicians went to collect tissue specimens. In one of two lengthy letters to the panel, a lawyer for StemExpress stated that its technicians did not review medical files — and that the panel would have known this had it interviewed any of the witnesses "repeatedly offered by StemExpress."

Having found no smoking guns in the University of New Mexico and StemExpress cases, the panel has passed its allegations to other authorities to settle while it continues to search for criminality. Beyond that, the report does little more than serve the panel's antiabortion narrative in which clinics are desperate to get more business, fetal tissue companies are intent on getting more product, and the technicians who collect these specimens send out emails blithely discussing fetal organs and limbs. Even if this portrait were accurate — and the panel offers little evidence to back that up — it establishes no wrongdoing.

The real danger here is that the panel's work will chill the activities of fetal tissue suppliers and the researchers who use it to study retinal degeneration, fetal development, the Zika virus and illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease. One San Diego stem cell researcher told the panel members in March that a project on multiple sclerosis in which he was involved had already been delayed because fetal material had become scarce. Meanwhile, six states have enacted bans this year on the donation of fetal tissue from abortions, and most of those also bar researchers from using such tissue.

The panel's ranking Democratic member, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, has repeatedly criticized the majority's tactics, called the investigation a witch hunt and joined a group of 181 Democratic members who have asked the speaker of the House to disband the panel. That would be the best course of action. In any case, the panel's final report is due by Dec. 31, which should spell the end to its existence.

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