Minnesota’s GOP is pushing for more restrictions on fetal tissue research at public universities after a news outlet supported by local Tea Party groups
State Rep. Abigail Whelan (R-Anoka) in an opinion piece for the Star Tribune last week wrote that she was “appalled to learn that the University of Minnesota participates in research on aborted human fetal organs.”
The Republican backlash against fetal tissue research began after the release of surreptitiously recorded, highly edited videos published by an anti-choice front group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). Those videos were edited in an attempt to show that Planned Parenthood engaged in the illegal sale of fetal tissue. While Planned Parenthood donates fetal tissue and receives some compensation to pay for obtaining and preserving the tissue, officials have denied profiting from it. Many GOP lawmakers have launched investigations into Planned Parenthood, but those investigations have turned up no wrongdoing.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) refused to order an investigation into the state’s Planned Parenthood chapter, despite push back from anti-choice legislators and activists. Dayton told reporters in July that he did not want to spend taxpayer money on an unnecessary investigation.
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“There’s not a shred of evidence to implicate Planned Parenthood Minnesota in what they were being accused of,” Dayton said in September.
In September, anti-choice protesters gathered outside Dayton’s home to rally against the governor’s decision not to investigate the health-care organization. Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota (PPMNS) has long denied donating fetal tissue.
Minnesota legislators in 1990 passed a law requiring hospitals and clinics to arrange burial or cremation of fetal remains. The legal question regarding the University of Minnesota is not whether it uses aborted fetal tissue in its research, but whether that fetal tissue comes from Minnesota, NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota’s Executive Director Andrea Ledger told Rewire.
The controversy is over how the statute should be interpreted, whether it means that aborted fetal tissue must be cremated or buried immediately, or whether that means that when it’s disposed, it must be cremated or buried. One interpretation outlaws the donation of fetal tissue, and one does not. Ledger says she doesn’t think it’s about the research at all—it’s about access to abortion.
“This is model legislation that’s being introduced in lots of different states,” Ledger said. “It comes from a desire not to regulate fetal tissue research, which we’ve all benefited from and which has had a huge impact on health and science, but it’s about restricting reproductive rights.”
Whelan, in her commentary for the Star Tribune, credits an investigation by a Tea Party-supported media outlet, Alpha News, with proving that the university is performing research using aborted fetal tissue, but the issue is really whether or not that tissue comes from Minnesota.
Alpha News alleges to be a news site, but has one named reporter. Everyone else affiliated with the organization has chosen to remain anonymous. The CMP attack video shows someone from Advanced Biomedical Research (ABR), where the University of Minnesota buys fetal tissue from, saying that Minnesota is among the states from which it procured tissue.
Julia Erynn, Alpha News’ chief capitol reporter and the only staffer named on the organization’s site, told the Star Tribune in March that the news outfit would generate ad revenue, but also received funding from “a number of private donors” who remain unknown. Erynn reportedly describes herself as a libertarian and emceed the 2014 Libertarian Party of Minnesota Convention.
The Tribune reported that Alex Kharam, executive director of the Freedom Club, is listed as the registered agent for Alpha News. The Freedom Club’s PAC, per its website, “has spent millions supporting conservative Minnesota candidates for public office.” Almost all of the Freedom Club money given to candidates has gone to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
A Freedom Club representative has denied affiliation with Alpha News.
Whelan wrote that she wants the university to halt research on aborted fetal tissue no matter where the tissue comes from. She declined an interview with Rewire.
“The university receives millions of taxpayer dollars each year,” Whelan wrote. “Given the controversial nature of this research, we believe it is the duty of the Legislature to request that the university prohibit all research on aborted human fetal organs, thereby removing itself from this controversy and respecting the moral stance of thousands of taxpaying Minnesotans.”
Minnesota’s legislative session begins March 1. Ledger says she expects both Republicans and Democrats to propose legislation regarding fetal tissue research.