On July 14, the Republican members of Congress’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives released an interim report of its ongoing investigation of abortion providers and medical researchers, which, they allege, were involved in the sale of donated fetal tissue.
In a July 25 editorial, the Los Angeles Times editorial board criticized the select panel’s interim report and called for the panel to be disbanded based on the complete lack of evidence the document contained. As the editorial board wrote, despite “months of investigation and subpoenas for staggering amounts of records … 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 revelations.”
The select panel was formed in October 2015 after the anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of deceptively edited videos targeting Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue procurement companies. In the past year, CMP’s deceptive videos have been consistently debunked while multiple state investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, CMP and its founder David Daleiden have been indicted for fraud by a grand jury in Houston, TX, have been subject to several lawsuits, and have had their work soundly rejected by multiple judges and journalists.
Undeterred, Republican members of the select panel have sourced numerous documents from CMP’s website and videos to use as “evidence” in their ongoing campaign against Planned Parenthood. Despite calls by congressional Democrats and 50 organizations to disband the panel, House Speaker Paul Ryan has reiterated his support for its work. Furthermore, the House Administration Committee has also approved supplemental funding for the panel’s continued operation.
Although the select panel’s interim report made a variety of allegations against Planned Parenthood, tissue procurement firms, and universities engaged in medical research, the Los Angeles Times noted that the panel “has yet to find any proof that anyone is selling or buying fetal tissue.” In fact, as the editorial board explained: “One of the panel’s main findings” -- concerning allegations against the University of New Mexico (UNM) -- “is actually just speculation.”
Prior to their release of the interim report, select panel Republicans sent a letter to the New Mexico attorney general arguing that UNM was improperly contracting with a nearby abortion clinic, Southwestern Women’s Options (SWWO). In an accompanying press release, select panel Chairman Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) accused UNM of having a “symbiotic relationship” with SWWO that was in violation of federal and state law. In reality, the Times explained, UNM “has categorically denied both allegations” and also “contends that the panel is misreading state law.”
In another section of the report, the panel’s Republican members recounted their recommendation to the Department of Health and Human Services that the tissue procurement company StemExpress be investigated for violating federal patient privacy laws. The panel alleged that StemExpress employees placed in abortion clinics were allowed too much access to patients’ private medical information in order to assess candidates for potential fetal tissue donation.
As the Times noted, however, this allegation, too, was unproven. Quoting a lawyer for StemExpress, the editorial board explained that StemExpress did not violate any privacy laws because “its technicians did not review medical files,” and “the panel would have known this had it interviewed any of the witnesses ‘repeatedly offered by StemExpress.’”
Since the select panel’s inception, media have criticized its actions as a politically motivated “witch hunt” against abortion providers and medical researchers. The Times endorsed this critique and added that the panel’s Republican members have “made no secret of their mission” to advance an anti-choice agenda, regardless of its veracity:
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.
Even if the panel’s allegations are baseless, there are still costs associated with attacks on fetal tissue research. Since the start of CMP’s smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, there has been a “chilling effect” on fetal tissue donation and research. As the Times editorial board wrote, “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.”