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Democrat: House GOP’s Fetal Tissue Panel Pushes ‘Dangerous Witch Hunt’

Nicole Knight

Republicans' ongoing investigations into fetal tissue research are “reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s abusive tactics," Rep. Jan Schakowsky said.

Any illusion that the first hearing of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives wasn’t a shrouded partisan attack on abortion rights vanished in the first minutes of the nearly four-hour hearing on Wednesday.

The ostensible aim of the hearing, called “Bioethics and Fetal Tissue,” was to hear testimony of tissue-research scientists and bioethics experts on the subject of fetal tissue research. Instead, House Republicans took turns dissecting reproductive rights amid testimony comparing fetal tissue research to the horrific experiments of Nazi Josef Mengele. Democrats called for the panel to disband, with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) saying the investigation was “a partisan and dangerous witch hunt.”

House GOP leaders last summer established the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, made up of eight Republicans and six Democrats, to investigate claims that abortion providers and firms “sell baby body parts.” The effort was part of a flurry of state and federal investigations into allegations of illegal fetal tissue sales by Planned Parenthood.

Federal and state GOP legislators launched investigations into Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue program after an anti-choice front group, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), released a series of widely discredited smear videos edited to make it appear the health-care organization was breaking the law. CMP officials have worked closely with Republican lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood.

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Schakowsky, the minority leader, was quick to point out that multiple investigations have found no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood; 12 states so far have cleared the health-care provider.

Partisan rhetoric, Schakowsky said, had created a climate of violence.

“We live in a world where researchers who use fetal tissue are compared to Nazi war criminals and extremists have tried to burn clinics to the ground,” Schakowsky said.

Schakowsky blasted Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the House panel, for subpoenaing the names of patients, medical students, and clinic personnel performing abortions or conducting fetal tissue research, calling it “reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s abusive tactics.”

“There is no apparent reason for this other than harassment and intimidation,” Schakowsky said.

Blackburn said the CMP footage “revealed that something very troubling is going on related to fetal tissue and research.”

During the hearing, a motion by panel member Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to quash Blackburn’s subpoenas failed in a party-line vote of 8 to 6.

Representatives on the panel took turns questioning six people who had been called to testify. Appearing first were R. Alta Charo, the Warren P. Knowles professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; Dr. Gerard Kevin Donovan, senior clinical scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University; and Paige Comstock Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity and the former head of the anti-choice group Americans United for Life (AUL).

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) drilled into those who came to testify, asking them to answer quick yes-or-no questions about their biases and expertise. Both Cunningham and Donovan admitted they oppose abortion rights, support bans on fetal tissue research from abortion, and are not research scientists.

DeGette then focused on Donovan, asking him about comments linking abortion care to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor of Auschwitz.

“It was you who talked about the Tuskegee and the Mengele experiments,” DeGette said. “Do you … make fetal tissue donations from abortion equal to those experiments?”

“I think that we need to be very careful,” Donovan said.

DeGette pressed him for an answer, “Do you think they’re equal, yes or no? Yes or no?”

“Maybe,” Donovan said.

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) asked Charo to confirm that fetal tissue research in this country must adhere to strict legal and ethical guidelines, which Charo did.

DelBene continued, “And professor do you think it’s ethical to use ideology about women’s rights to shape the rules that guide scientific research, and why or why not?”

“I’m very, very unhappy at seeing a debate around abortion turn into a debate around scientific research,” Charo said. “That’s not to say that I’m happy about the debate about abortion either, because I find it really offensive to imagine that women are incapable about making their own decisions about whether to have an abortion and whether or not to donate the tissue.”

Halfway through the hearing, the panel called on its second round of experts: Larry Goldstein, the distinguished professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program; Patrick Lee, the director of the Center for Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville; and Kathleen M. Schmainda, professor of radiology and biophysics at the Center for Imaging Research at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Responding to a question about the potential scientific toll of restricting fetal tissue research, Goldstein said “research into deadly disease will slow down.”

Goldstein recalled testifying at a fetal tissue research hearing with Christopher Reeve, the late actor and stem-cell research advocate who was paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury. Reeve died after going into a coma following treatment of an infected pressure wound.

“And the fact was, time was at stake,” Goldstein said. “He unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see us put an appropriate fetal neural stem cell type into clinical trial.”

As the hours dragged on, lawmakers’ questions drifted far afield of the subject of fetal tissue research.

House Republicans’ questions ran the gamut of anti-choice fear-mongering: Do developing brains of “minors” render them capable of consenting to abortion care? Should terminated fetuses be cremated or buried?

Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) rushed to the defense of David Daleiden, who faces felony charges for his role in CMP’s smear videos targeting Planned Parenthood. Bucshon said: “I would just remind everyone in the crowd that charges and indictments don’t mean guilt.”

Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) said she’d recently heard reports of a fetus that survived an abortion procedure in Arizona. She asked the panel whether abortion clinics should be equipped with neonatal care units.

Lee and Schmainda, both opposed to abortion care and fetal tissue research from the procedure, said yes. Goldstein declined to answer the question, saying he’s not an expert in abortion facility requirements.

Black, a former nurse, called for Congress to create a new “blue ribbon commission” to study fetal tissue research.

A similar commission during the Reagan era unanimously approved the use of fetal tissue research from abortion.

CORRECTION: A version of this article misstated Christopher Reeve’s cause of death.

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