Abortion providers, medical college officials, and other institutions with ties to fetal tissue research are worried about their privacy and safety after a U.S. House of Representatives panel issued another round of subpoenas last week.
Republicans on the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives issued the subpoenas—for depositions and documents from four people whose names were redacted, as well as four additional demands for records from organizations—as part of an ongoing investigation that began after an anti-choice group, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), alleged that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for profit.
No proof was ever offered for these claims. An independent research company found last year that CMP’s smear videos had been manipulated; United States District Court Judge William Orrick has placed many of them under a restraining order. David Daleiden, the head of CMP, was indicted in January by a Texas grand jury.
Meanwhile, incidents of targeted clinic violence have steadily climbed since the release of the discredited videos.
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There has been one congressional hearing on fetal tissue research, with testimony comparing it to Nazi experimentation. Twelve states with GOP-majority legislatures have investigated practices surrounding fetal tissue donations and research, which is legal in the United States and governed by strict ethical guidelines, and found no evidence of provider wrongdoing.
House Republicans nonetheless insist other hearings are necessary.
Patients who donate fetal tissue for medical research expect confidentiality, a Southwestern abortion provider said in an interview with Rewire. Though the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) covers patient privacy, the same protections do not extend to providers, researchers, or their support staff. As a result, these groups fear further harassment and violence with the release of identifying information.
As the GOP’s subpoenas continue, inflammatory language and repetition of false allegations of profit-making around fetal tissue procurement have alarmed providers who may find themselves the subject of investigation.
“It does paint a really negative view, and people that are unstable are going to see that as the go-ahead” to act violently toward providers, the provider said.
Mike Reynard, the spokesman for the panel’s Republicans, told Rewire that not only do the subpoenas refrain from asking for patient information, but that investigators have proposed using pseudonyms to prevent the names of lower-level staff witnesses from appearing in public or in committee publications going forward.
Such names were redacted in the panel’s first hearing last month and again in last week’s subpoenas, Reynard said.
The panel needs names of people involved in fetal tissue transactions and research in order to have a full understanding of what they involve, Reynard said. Democrats on the panel, however, have repeatedly called on Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to throw out the subpoenas and otherwise institute measures to protect privacy.
The medical community’s trepidation extends beyond the latest round of subpoenas. David Moore, senior director of government relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), told Rewire that various federal and state legislative proposals could have a chilling effect on fetal tissue research, deterring people worried about privacy and security from entering the field.
“We believe that this is a viable and necessary line of scientific inquiry,” Moore said. Research using fetal tissue has led to vaccines for polio, hepatitis A, chickenpox, rubella, and rabies. Scientists told the Associated Press in August that fetal tissue is essential for medical research on Parkinson’s, AIDS, and Ebola.
In a joint letter, the AAMC, the Association of American Universities, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities voiced safety concerns that subpoenaed institutions would have to release identifying information about researchers, graduate students and trainees, health-care providers, and administrative and support staff, regardless of their level of involvement in fetal tissue research.
The groups urged the panel to either outline security measures to protect the personal information of people working in this field or drop the subpoenas, allowing individuals and their institutions to voluntarily comply with the panel’s inquiries.
“I think we’re going to have to see, as this goes forward, how the information is being used, whether or not it’s being disseminated either publicly or privately,” Moore said.