House Select Investigative Panel Holds First Hearing

The House Select Investigative Panel, formed after the release of deceptive, highly-edited videos falsely accusing Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue, held its first hearing yesterday, the same day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that will determine whether millions of Texas women will be able to access abortion.

Though called a hearing on bioethics and fetal tissue, Republicans spent most of the hearing attacking abortion rights and calling into question the morality of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. The majority also questioned the value of fetal tissue research itself, despite evidence that such research has benefitted millions of people and has the potential to lead to lifesaving vaccines, cures, and therapies – a fact presented by Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, a professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine in the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the UCSD Stem Cell Program and Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center.

Dr. Goldstein testified specifically about the benefit of fetal tissue to advance medical research related to Alzheimer’s disease and spinal cord injuries, noting that “fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded [after an induced abortion] cannot be replaced by embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed stem cells, or adult stem cells.” He also clearly stated that fetal tissue donated after miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion, would not be an adequate substitute as the cells contained in the tissue may not have developed properly.

Fetal tissue donation and research – currently being used to search for vaccines against Ebola, HIV, and dengue fever – is already subject to federal and state laws and its ethics were examined in the 1970s by a commission on medical research, created by President Gerald Ford, and again in the 1980s by President Regan’s Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel. Both the commission and the panel found fetal tissue research ethical, but moreover, they found no evidence that fetal tissue donation impacted the decision whether to have an abortion.

Given existing regulation of fetal tissue research and its value to public health, Professor R. Alta Charo, a Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, told the Panel she was “outraged at the idea that we would sacrifice valuable medical research and gamble with lives” because of abortion politics, especially since “the number of abortions in the U.S. will be unaffected by this discussion, about whether to use the remains for research.”

Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also reminded the Panel that there is no basis for its continued investigation into Planned Parenthood, or the allegations made in the now debunked videos, which were created and released by anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP).

“Today’s hearing is not part of a serious investigation into fetal tissue research or anything,” said Schakowsky. “Twelve states, three congressional committees, and a grand jury in Texas have already investigated and found no evidence that Planned Parenthood is seeking to profit from the sale of fetal tissue. Indeed, the only criminal acts uncovered in the course of these investigations have been those of anti-abortion extremist David Daleiden.” She continued, “Faced with these facts, the Select Panel should have disbanded. Instead, the Chair has embarked on a partisan and dangerous witch hunt. Her actions are putting the privacy and safety of Americans at risk.”

Daleiden, the head of CMP, was indicted by a Harris County, Texas grand jury on felony criminal charges related to his CMP activities. Daleiden and CMP employee Sandra Merritt were also charged with a related misdemeanor.

Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal has urged the House Panel to either call on Daleiden, as well as CMP founding officer, board member and Operation Rescue president Troy Newman to answer questions about how their activities might have contributed to anti-abortion harassment, intimidation, and terrorizing of abortion providers, or to disband. Since the release of the CMP videos, threats and violence against abortion providers has escalated. In November, anti-abortion extremist Robert Lewis Dear shot a killed three people and injured nine others at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. Then in December, another anti-abortion extremist was indicted for threatening to kill an executive of the biotech firm that was featured in the videos.

The CMP videos also appear to have had “a chilling effect on science,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. In a recent report, “Fetal Tissue Research: A Weapon and a Casualty in the War against Abortion,” Heather Boonstra explains that some scientists have been afraid to speak out against the political attacks on fetal tissue research. “They have seen how abortion providers have been targeted, and now they too fear for their personal safety,” she writes.

At the hearing, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) continued to object to subpoenas issued by Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that would force healthcare providers, research institutions, and others to disclose the names of doctors, medical students, and clinic personnel. Ranking Member Schakowsky previously noted her strong opposition to the subpoenas in a letter to Blackburn, explaining that releasing this type of information could “put people’s lives at risk.”

Nadler asked Blackburn pointedly to answer why the names of medical researchers and others were pertinent to the Panel’s investigation. Blackburn replied, “No, sir, I am not going to answer that.” The Panel then voted 8-6 along party lines to table Nadler’s motion to quash the subpoenas.

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