The House oversight subcommittee on health care held a hearing on December 13 about “Alternatives to Fetal Tissue Research” that was largely driven by allegations from anti-abortion groups. The hearing not only recycled anti-choice misinformation and right-wing lies, but also failed to disclose the anti-choice ties of several key witnesses -- a fact that was magnified on social media by various anti-abortion organizations promoting the hearing.
Though it is often treated as an impartial research organization by other anti-choice groups, the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) is actually operated by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. CLI was created by SBA List in 2011 and has remained part of the organization -- filing its federal 990 tax forms as the “Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund” and running Facebook ads for SBA List during the 2018 midterm elections. CLI’s anti-abortion work involves putting “expert testimony before legislatures across the U.S. on the reality of pain in the unborn” and helping anti-abortion fake health clinics with research to maximize their “outreach and effectiveness.”
During the December 13 hearing, two of the three witnesses represented CLI -- but only one disclosed this anti-choice affiliation. While Tara Sander Lee was correctly identified as an associate scholar at CLI, her colleague David Prentice was not -- despite serving as the vice president and research director of CLI since 2015. This fact was omitted from panel testimony, Republican member questioning, and even social media promotion of the panel by CLI and its allies. During the hearing, Prentice was instead introduced and referred to as an advisory board member at the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center. SBA List's press release about the panel also omits Prentice's CLI affiliation, and regarding his advisory board member position it includes the disclaimer “Title is for identification purposes only.” However, in an email to supporters about the hearing, SBA List wrote that the organization was “proud” to have had “two exceptional scholars from our research arm, Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI)” speak.
Although neither SBA List nor CLI disclosed Prentice’s affiliation on social media during the December 13 hearing, both organizations have previously done so for other presentations and media appearances. For example, during a November panel on fetal tissue research hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, SBA List tweeted a link to the discussion and identified Prentice as representing CLI. In October, CLI promoted a media appearance by Prentice, identifying him as “Our VP.” In 2016, SBA List promoted a media appearance by Prentice and correctly identified him as being affiliated with CLI. As the communications director for the ranking Democrat of the committee told ThinkProgress, “While not untoward, it is unusual and telling for one hearing to have two expert witnesses affiliated with the same research tank.”
Beyond the lack of disclosure around Prentice’s role with CLI, the December 13 hearing also recycled misinformation from a previous congressional hearing driven by a discredited anti-abortion organization. During a 2016 hearing by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) introduced a consent form used by Planned Parenthood for the donation of fetal tissue for research. Hartzler focused on the form’s phrasing that researchers had found cures for certain diseases using fetal tissue to claim that the form was misleading and ultimately coerced people to donate by exerting “undue influence.” But her claim was based on an inaccurate reading of research guidelines.
Prentice reintroduced the debunked consent form during his December 13 testimony, arguing that it was “misleading” to donors because it makes them “think there have been great strides made with fetal tissue.” This claim was repeated in a tweet by SBA List which credited the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress for obtaining the document.
Unfortunately, the House oversight hearing provided only the latest example of what some experts have identified as “alternative science” sourced directly from right-wing media and anti-abortion extremists. President Donald Trump recently appointed CLI associate scholar Maureen Condic to serve a six-year term on the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation that provides scientific support to Congress and the president. Condic has repeatedly testified to lawmakers in favor of 20-week abortion bans by inaccurately arguing that there is scientific evidence showing a fetus feels pain starting at eight weeks. After her appointment, researchers speculated that Condic was appointed specifically because of her work on the right-wing myth of fetal pain.
Other anti-abortion groups have continued to push for legislation based on junk science and right-wing media lies -- like 20-week bans -- to restrict access to abortion and wider reproductive health care. Anti-abortion groups at the state and federal level have pushed for so-called “heartbeat” bills that would ban abortion around the six-week mark, before most people even know that they are pregnant. According to HuffPost, such bills “fundamentally misunderstand fetal development” in terms of what the heartbeat means for fetal viability. Anti-abortion groups also use faulty scientific justifications to advocate placing burdensome requirements on abortion providers to shut clinics down -- even after the Supreme Court ruled against some of those requirements in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
Anti-abortion extremists have found ample footholds in the Trump administration, and the December 13 hearing showed that Congress is no different. Although it’s unsurprising that CLI members would continue to push their anti-abortion views while purporting to offer impartial scientific testimonies, they should at least be expected to fully disclose their roles with the organization to Congress and the public -- especially when the health care policies that they promote have such dire consequences.