News Abortion

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

Nicole Knight Shine

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.

News Politics

Congresswoman Pushes Intersectionality at Democratic National Convention

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) charges that reproductive health-care restrictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

The members of Congress who flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week included a vocal advocate for the intersection of racial and reproductive justice: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Watson Coleman’s longstanding work in these areas “represented the intersection of who I am,” she said during a discussion in Philadelphia sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Cosmopolitan. Reproductive health-care restrictions, she stressed, have a disproportionate effect on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

“These decisions impact these communities even more so [than others],” she told Rewire in an interview. “We don’t have the alternatives that middle-class, suburban, white women have. And we’d rather they have them.”

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Watson Coleman has brought that context to her work in Congress. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and serves on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a GOP-led, $1.2 million investigation that she and her fellow Democrats have called an anti-choice “witch hunt.”

Coleman said she’s largely found support and encouragement among her fellow lawmakers during her first term as a woman of color and outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

“What I’ve gotten from my Republican colleagues who are so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose—I don’t think it has anything to do with my being a woman or an African American, it has to do with the issue,” she said.

House Republicans have increasingly pushed anti-choice policies in advance of the ongoing August recess and November’s presidential election. The House this month passed the Conscience Protection Act, which would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in such care.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) lauded passage of the bill and the House’s thus-far unsuccessful effort to prove that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations—allegations based on widely discredited videos published by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-choice front group that has worked closely with GOP legislators to attack funding for Planned Parenthood.

On the other side of the aisle, Watson Coleman joined 118 other House Democrats to co-sponsor the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (HR 2972). Known as the EACH Woman Act, the legislation would overturn the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every woman has access to insurance coverage of abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal funding for abortion care represents a particularly significant barrier for people with low incomes and people of color.

The Democratic Party platform, for the first time, calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, though the process for undoing a yearly federal appropriations rider remains unclear.

For Watson Coleman, the path forward on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment is clear on at least one point: The next president can’t go it alone.

“The president will have to have a willing Congress,” she said. She called on the electorate to “recognize that this is not a personality contest” and “remove some of those people who have just been obstructionists without having the proper evidence.”

In the meantime, what does a “willing Congress” look like for legislation with anti-choice roadblocks? A majority voting bloc helps, Watson Coleman said. But that’s not everything.

“There are lots of bills that Republicans will vote for if their leadership would simply bring them up,” she said.

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”