News Abortion

House GOP Marches Ahead With Fetal Tissue Research Investigations

Nicole Knight

Republicans, galvanized by a series of widely discredited smear videos, have launched a flurry of failed investigations into claims of illegal fetal tissue sales by Planned Parenthood.

U.S. House Republicans are plowing ahead with an investigation into unsubstantiated claims that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue, with plans this week to subpoena three organizations involved in fetal tissue research.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the GOP-formed Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, vowed Thursday in an online announcement to subpoena the biotech firm StemExpress, the University of New Mexico (UNM), and Albuquerque-based Southwestern Women’s Options for failing to “fully cooperate with document requests.”

GOP leaders in the House last summer established the panel, made up of eight Republicans and six Democrats, to investigate abortion providers and firms that “sell baby body parts.” The effort was part of a flurry of failed state and federal investigations into claims of illegal fetal tissue sales by Planned Parenthood after a series of covertly recorded videos was released by the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). CMP has worked closely with GOP lawmakers to attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. David Daleiden, the activist at the head of the smear campaign, has been indicted by a grand jury and has turned himself into authorities.

At least 11 states have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing despite these inflammatory claims. But the health-care provider isn’t Blackburn’s target this week.

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StemExpress is a California firm that processes human fetal tissue for research, while the UNM Health Sciences Center conducts fetal tissue research to alleviate brain damage and blindness in premature babies. Southwestern Women’s Options is an abortion provider with a fetal tissue donation program that has come under Republican-led attacks.

“By failing to fully cooperate with our investigation, these organizations have compelled our panel to subpoena these documents in order to acquire information that is vital to the completion of our work,” Blackburn said in a statement. “Without these subpoenas, the American people and the House itself would be left to speculate about what is going on in the fetal tissue industry. We cannot leave questions unanswered.”

All three organizations said in statements that they are fully complying with the GOP-led investigation. Meanwhile, House Democrats on the panel blasted Blackburn in a letter Friday. Democrats charged that Blackburn has violated committee rules and excluded them from discussions, and urged her to abandon her plan to issue subpoenas or schedule a special meeting of the panel.

Democrats on the investigative panel say Blackburn is now seeking the names of doctors, medical students, and clinic personnel in what they describe as an “abusive and unjustifiable use of the chair’s unilateral subpoena authority.” They raised “serious concerns” that demanding the names of health-care providers and students “jeopardizes individual privacy and safety.”

UNM officials said they received a letter from the panel in early January notifying them of the investigation, and that Blackburn threatened to subpoena the university before the February 15 deadline to turn over documents.

UNM Health Sciences Center said in a statement that it has submitted information requested into 19 areas of research and medicine, and is complying fully: “Our staff has been diligently working to gather responsive documents and we intend to honor our agreement.”

“We have formally responded this afternoon to its information request, as we previously arranged,” said Jessica R. Hertz, an attorney for Southwestern Women’s Options, in a statement to the NM Political Report. “We will continue to be responsive to the panel’s inquiries and will do so in a manner that protects individuals’ safety and privacy.”

Officials from StemExpress, which ended its ties to Planned Parenthood in the wake of the attack videos’ release, said the company has turned over to the panel the same materials requested by investigations into Planned Parenthood by the House Committee on Government Reform, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The California company said in a statement that Blackburn now seeks “confidential client information and the identity of individual scientists and researchers.”

A StemExpress executive was allegedly subjected to death threats last year after its ties to Planned Parenthood became public, as Rewire reported. A Washington state man is facing federal charges for the alleged threats, which included, “Stop the death of innocents. Kill the killers,” and “StemExpress your lives don’t matter nearly as much as your deaths do.”

Republican-led staff on the investigative panel have issued more than 30 information requests overall, according to an announcement of the subpoenas.

Democrats on the panel, citing the recent rise in anti-choice violence, said Blackburn’s subpoena actions are “appalling.”

“Just over two months ago—on the day after Thanksgiving—an anti-abortion extremist murdered three people, injured nine others, and terrorized providers and patients at an abortion clinic in Colorado Springs. In December, another extremist was indicted for offering cash to kill an executive at one of the organizations that you are now threatening to subpoena. In that case, an anti-abortion extremist posted online that the “[company executive] should be hung by the neck using piano wire and propped up on the lawn in front of the building with a note attached.” It is appalling that, in this atmosphere, you have elected to use your unilateral subpoena authority in a manner that may increase the risk for healthcare providers, clinic personnel, medical students, and researchers.”

The letter is signed by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

News Violence

Fetal Tissue Workers Sue to Stop David Daleiden From Getting Their Names

Nicole Knight

The plaintiffs' lawyer explained that the researchers, who remain anonymous in the complaint, “are very fearful that they may be subjected to the same type of harassment and violence” that abortion clinic employees have faced.

Employees and scientists with ties to the University of Washington’s Birth Defects Research Laboratory have won a temporary reprieve in federal court barring the release of their personal information to anti-choice activist David Daleiden and his cohorts.

Federal judge James L. Robart granted the restraining order on Wednesday, after the plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit to block the release of a trove of documents requested by Daleiden and a representative from a Washington state anti-choice group. The unredacted records reveal the individuals’ identifying information, such as names, addresses, and phone numbers, according to court documents.

A hearing on a permanent order is expected later this month in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Using the Washington state Public Records Act, Daleiden and Zach Freeman, communications director with the anti-choice Family Policy Institute of Washington, had sought records dating back to 2010 related to work at the Birth Defects Research Laboratory. The research laboratory collects, processes, and distributes fetal tissue for research at academic and nonprofit institutions nationwide, according to court documents. Also ensnared in the sweeping document request were various medical and bioscience institutions, including Seattle Children’s Hospital and Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Daleiden had requested purchase orders, invoices, emails, grant applications, contracts, materials transfer agreements, rent/lease agreements, and other documents, according to an exhibit in court documents.

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Janet Chung, counsel with Seattle-based Legal Voice, who is representing the plaintiffs, said her clients wanted to stop the release of the unredacted records.

Daleiden, a self-proclaimed investigative journalist and head of the California-based anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress, was formerly indicted for his role in a string of discredited “sting” videos falsely accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations.

Reached by phone on Friday, Chung explained that the plaintiffs, who remain anonymous in the complaint, “are very fearful that they may be subjected to the same type of harassment and violence” that abortion clinic employees have faced, particularly after the publication of the CMP videos. Releasing the unredacted records would violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to privacy and free association, according to the complaint.

Chung called Daleiden and Freeman’s records request a “fishing expedition” intended to “harass and intimidate.”

In an emailed statement, Daleiden said he is seeking the “truth” about a “cover-up” at the University of Washington.

When Rewire asked Daleiden whether he objected to redacting identifying information, such as names and addresses, he said in an email that his records request in February did not ask for the “personal contact information of any individuals whatsoever.”

As he explained to Rewire, however, he is seeking the communications of eight individuals whom he considers public figures:

My request only seeks those of 8 public figures…who are very publicly identified with their work at [Birth Defects Research Laboratory] with fetal body parts or with Planned Parenthood’s abortion program in Washington state.

The eight “public figures” that Daleiden names include a retired birth defects researcher, a research director at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a top executive at Planned Parenthood.

Chung, however, told Rewire that Daleiden’s request was so broad that releasing the records would disclose the personal information of more than 150 individuals.

Chung said the plaintiffs resorted to court action because the state public records law doesn’t necessarily require the redaction of personal information, and the University of Washington had warned that it would release the records on August 5.

About two weeks before filing the complaint, Chung said they’d discussed redacting the documents with Daleiden, but he declined. She said they’re continuing to try to resolve the matter with Daleiden’s legal counsel.

In affidavits included with the complaint, plaintiffs claim they’ve been threatened, harassed, and exposed to violence —even murder—due to their ties to fetal tissue research.

As an employee at Seattle Children’s Hospital, identified only as John Doe 1 to protect his privacy and safety, writes:

In one case, Seattle Children’s diagnosed a fetus with a lethal disorder, and because of number of weeks of gestation, the patient had to travel out of state to obtain an abortion. I had interactions with the physician who performed the abortion relating to the autopsy that Children’s Labs performed on the fetus. That physician was later killed by someone with anti-abortion views.

In another affidavit, a professor and research scientist who studies congenital birth defects and is identified as Jane Doe 8, writes:

I fear that having my identity and personal information released to the public would lead to harassment, threats, or violence directed against me or my family.

Protecting the privacy and safety of researchers and employees with ties to fetal tissue science has emerged as an issue of growing concern among scientists as anti-choice groups and Republican lawmakers march on with what some have called a Planned Parenthood “witch hunt.”

In June, the head of the U.S. House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives revealed fetal tissue scientists’ identities in letters sent to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—prompting fears in the medical research community the individuals will be subject to harassment and violence by anti-abortion activists.

As Chung told Rewire, “This is all very much rooted in the concern that the same types of harassment and violence that clinics experience are now being targeted on a wider range of people—all with the goal of chilling important research and medical care.”

The lawsuit is the fourth filed against Daleiden and his anti-choice group following the release of the first wave of CMP’s sting videos last summer. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Abortion Federation (NAF), and StemExpress, a fetal tissue processing firm that once worked with Planned Parenthood, have all sued in federal court in California.

Daleiden often frames his work as citizen journalism, but in a brief filed with the NAF lawsuit, 18 of the country’s leading journalists and journalism scholars noted that “calling himself an ‘investigative journalist’ … does not make it so.”

In April, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office searched Daleiden’s California apartment as part of an ongoing investigation into the CMP’s secret recording methods.

Officials in a dozen states, including Washington state, have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing in its tissue donation programs, and eight additional states have declined to investigate the health-care provider.

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