Arizona Republican state senators pushed through a trio of anti-choice measures Wednesday to limit medication abortion, outlaw fetal tissue research, and bar state employees from donating to Planned Parenthood.
The bills advanced out of the Senate Government and Senate Health and Human Services committees on a party-line vote. Republicans hold the majority in both committees as well as in the house and senate.
Two of the bills, SB 1474 and SB 1324, are virtual repeats of measures passed last year, which attempted to outlaw human fetal tissue research and restrict pill-induced abortion care. The federal U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked both, calling the language in the fetal tissue ban “vague” and the abortion restrictions, which were included in a larger omnibus bill, unconstitutional.
This time around, GOP lawmakers contend they’ve tweaked the anti-choice bills to survive a court challenge. The state’s Republican governor, on another front, is pushing to remove the state from the Ninth Circuit, which is stacked with appointees from the Obama, Clinton, and Carter administrations, and has so far frowned on Arizona state legislators’ attacks on abortion access.
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SB 1324 would force providers to follow 16-year-old Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protocols for medication abortion care, rather than updated evidence-based practices. The bill would effectively shorten the window of time for a patient seeking a medication abortion from today’s medically accepted nine weeks’ gestation to seven weeks.
Sen. Kimberly Yee (R-Phoenix), a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, framed the rebooted bill around patient safety—despite a wealth of medical evidence supporting off-label medication abortion regimens.
Abortion providers, she said, have acted “outside of the FDA protocol and that is a risk,” according to an Associated Press report.
A five-year study of 13,000 women published in 2015 in Contraception found that evidence-based alternatives to the FDA-approved regimen for medication abortion are safe and effective.
Planned Parenthood Arizona CEO Bryan Howard told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday that forcing providers to follow outdated FDA standards puts barriers on the legal procedure and pushes pregnant people to surgical abortion. He said Ohio saw its rate of pill-induced terminations plummet after that state’s providers were forced by GOP lawmakers to abide by the 16-year-old FDA protocol.
The bill advanced in a 4-3 party line vote.
Republicans on the Health and Human Services Committee also voted 4 to 3 in favor of Sen. Nancy Barto’s (R-Phoenix) bill, SB 1474, to outlaw human fetal tissue research.
Barto recounted debunked claims that Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue, referencing the heavily edited and widely discredited attack videos published by an anti-choice front group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the leaders of which have been indicted on charges related to the videos. CMP officials have worked closely with GOP lawmakers across the country in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader state Sen. Katie Hobbs (D-Phoenix) countered that multiple investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing and pointed out that CMP officials behind the smear videos are now facing felony charges.
“I’m shocked that these videos are still being used to promote this inflammatory issue,” Hobbs said. “This bill can serve to prohibit important research that is being done.”
Arizona is already covered by a federal law that prohibits profiting from fetal tissue donation, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Arizona Republicans’ targeting of the health-care provider didn’t stop there. Republicans in the Senate Government Committee voted 4 to 2 to prohibit state workers from using payroll deductions to donate to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.
SB 1485 enshrines into law a policy enacted last year by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican with staunch anti-choice views. Ducey dropped Planned Parenthood from a list of donation-eligible organizations included in the government charitable campaign, although the health-care provider met the eligibility criteria.
This is the second article in a two-part series on the effect Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives is having on the research community. You can read the first piece in the series here.
The anti-choice front group that triggered Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)’s investigation into widely discredited allegations of fetal tissue trafficking first revealed the identities of researchers who have used fetal tissue in their work more than a year ago.
In May 2015, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) published unredacted documents naming the researchers that are identical to those used by the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, according to a publicly available online directory discovered by Rewire. In June 2016, CMP added to its database unredacted Planned Parenthood contracts, which appeared verbatim among the documents that Blackburn sent over to the Obama administration as part of her request for a federal abortion inquiry.
CMP’s heavily edited videos alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations led to three congressional investigations that yielded no evidence of wrongdoing and the creation of the current panel, seemingly intent on proving otherwise. David Daleiden, the group’s leader, remains under criminal indictment in Texas for fraud in connection with his production and release of the videos. This month, Arizona became the 13th state to find no substance to his allegations.
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One of the at least 14 researchers named in the documents agreed to an interview with Rewire, some of which appeared in part one of this series, on the condition of anonymity. The researcher wasn’t aware that such a prominent anti-choice group had previously revealed the names and contact information for individuals typically found in laboratories, not abortion clinics. Neither did Eugene Gu, a second researcher that spoke with Rewire on the record. The select panel subpoenaed Gu’s company, Ganogen, Inc., in March.
Gu said that by releasing the names and delaying the redactions, Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives select panel allowed anti-choice groups to get their hands on the researchers’ personal and professional information. The documents were available online for two days before the belated redactions. Links to the unredacted documents sent to reporters remained live for at least five days.
“I was actually hoping that they corrected it fast enough that it wouldn’t be re-circulated, but I guess that was just wishful thinking,” Gu said.
Relationship Raises Eyebrows on Capitol Hill
Gu didn’t realize that CMP had circulated the researchers’ names in 2015. No matter which came first, the underlying fact remains the same: CMP and Blackburn are using many of the same documents to try and prove the existence of fetal tissue trafficking.
The connection, at a minimum, raises a chicken-or-egg scenario. Is CMP feeding information to Blackburn, is it the other way around—or is it a combination of the two?
Congressional Democrats have few doubts that it’s all of the above.
“That relationship is clearly very close,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the panel’s ranking member, said in an interview with Rewire. “It certainly appears that the Republicans may be receiving documents and information directly from Daleiden or someone associated with him.”
StemExpress, the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos, raised the same objections over Blackburn’s exhibits for the hearing looking into the allegations of fetal tissue “pricing.”
“While some of these illegally obtained documents are posted to the CMP website, some of the Majority’s exhibits have never appeared publicly, suggesting that perhaps the Select Panel may be receiving so-called ‘evidence’ directly from Mr. Daleiden and/or his associates,” the company’s counsel wrote in a letter to the select panel.
Blackburn’s select panel did not respond for comment by publication time.
Fetal tissue research plays an important role in understanding the causes of diseases, particularly Zika and others that strike in utero, according to the researcher. Such research could also lead to major developments in the area of regenerative medicine, potentially replacing lost neurons as a result of Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries.
The researcher that requested anonymity sought to correct the record on Blackburn’s assertions about the processes governing such research.
“It’s important for the public to understand the way research works,” the researcher said. Biologists “will do absolutely everything that they can” in the initial stages to use human cultured cells or animal models, turning to fetal tissue specimens only for final, confirmatory experiments. The researcher described a multistep process that involved senior-level reviews to determine whether experiments had advanced to that stage and, if so, establish reputable sources from which to place orders.
“I would want to reassure people who don’t support the use of fetal tissue for research that researchers take the weight of the responsibility of using this material very seriously,” the researcher said. The research community approaches fetal tissue “with the utmost respect” and reserves use “for the most important experiments when there is no other possible scientifically valid way to address the question that needs to be addressed.”
Frustrations, Fears Run High Amid Slowing Research
Gu echoed similar ethical considerations in his use of fetal tissue. Through Ganogen, he’s set an ambitious goal: End the organ donor shortage, starting with pediatric patients, by growing human fetal organs in animals. He credits fetal tissue with the potential to greatly accelerate the clinical trial process.
“There’s no alternative to having human tissue, and this is human tissue that would be incinerated and thrown away. We’re not encouraging abortions in any shape or form,” Gu said. “A transplant surgeon doesn’t encourage traffic fatalities so they have organs to transplant into their patients.”
The research community, nevertheless, is suffering as a direct result of the investigation and the anti-choice sentiment fueling it. The New York Times reported a downturn in the availability of fetal tissue for research and the willingness of institutions to proceed with what remains. One neurologist delayed his multiple sclerosis research until 2019, according to the Washington Post.
Separately, the reproductive health-care community is facing its own set of consequences—in the form of unprecedented violence that researchers fear could head their way and ultimately, dissuade them from participating in fetal tissue research.
The researcher that requested anonymity recognized the cessation of research as the investigation’s “intended,” if misguided, goal.
“To my mind, it doesn’t help the overall cause of improving humanity by curing disease, and finding new remedies for conditions that plague all of us, to intimidate researchers in this way, especially in an instance like this where it is not the researchers themselves that are accused of doing anything wrong,” the researcher said.
The way Gu sees it, the select panel isn’t just putting his own life, and research, at risk. It’s endangering widespread medical advancements. And it’s frustrating for him.
“That’s why we went to medical school in the first place—to help patients, not to be subpoenaed by Congress,” Gu said.
Ten months of monitoring fetal tissue donations by abortion providers has revealed zero instances of wrongdoing, the Arizona Department of Health Services told the ArizonaRepublic last week.
The results follow a new “emergency” rule that the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, established in August to requireclinics to disclose whether abortion patients agreed to the transfer of fetal tissue to another person or entity; who those patients were; and any compensation they received, as Arizona Republic reported. The requirements were added to the forms that clinics must file with the state health department.
Ducey pushed for the rule even though Planned Parenthood Arizona officials told Rewire that the health-care organization does not operate a fetal tissue donation program in the state.
“This is a silly requirement enacted to solve a non-existent problem,” Jodi Liggett, vice president of public affairs with Planned Parenthood Arizona, said in an email on Monday to Rewire.
In an online statement last year, Ducey maintained the new rule was essential, citing the discredited videos by the Center for Medical Progress that tried to make it seem as if Planned Parenthood officials earned a profit from fetal tissue donations, which is illegal. Multiple state and federal investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing.
“The footage released by The Center for Medical Progressregarding the alleged sale and trafficking of aborted fetal tissue and body parts by Planned Parenthood is horrifying and has no place in a civilized society,” Ducey said. “I am calling on the Department of Health Services to conduct a thorough review of the law and immediately promulgate emergency rules designed to prohibit the illegal sale of any tissue from an unborn child.” The new policy is one such “emergency rule.”
And while Ducey also pushed for the involvement of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, it’s unclear whether Brnovich’s office is investigating Planned Parenthood. Mia Garcia, spokesperson for Brnovich, responded to a Rewire inquiry with the following text message: “The Attorney General’s Office does not discuss any potential, ongoing investigations. That includes status.”
Liggett told Rewire she was “not aware of any currently.”
The “gotcha” videos were a catalyst for a slew of new Republican-led abortion restrictions in Arizona in the most recent legislative session, including a ban signed by Ducey in March on using fetal tissue from abortions in research. The state’s Republican legislators, however, were forced to repeal a law to severely restrict medication abortion after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated its guidelines. Arizona wanted to bar Arizona doctors from prescribing the two-pill regime after seven weeks of pregnancy and require a higher dosage than medical evidence suggests; the FDA said the medication is effective up to ten weeks at the lower dosage.