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Blackburn Reveals Fetal Tissue Researchers’ Identities in Call for Federal Abortion Inquiry (Updated)

Christine Grimaldi

The letters from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requesting the inquiry failed to redact researchers’ names and contact information despite past assurances.

UPDATE, June 3, 4:37 p.m.: Mike Reynard, select panel spokesperson for Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), attributed the unredacted names to staff error. They have been removed from the documents on the select panel’s website, he told Rewire Friday afternoon. The documents continue to list institution names. The unredacted versions of the documents are still available at the links sent to press in Blackburn’s original news release.

“The chairman has been very clear about redacting the names and staff just made a mistake,” Reynard said, referring to Blackburn. Unredacted copies were sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services so that officials would know whom to interview, he said.

The links to the documents in this story have been updated to reflect the redacted versions.

The top Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives panel investigating questionable reproductive health care allegations called on the Obama administration to examine new charges that a tissue procurement company and abortion clinics violated federal health privacy law.

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The letters from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requesting the inquiry failed to redact researchers’ names and contact information despite past assurances.

Blackburn charged that her Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives uncovered evidence that the tissue procurement company, StemExpress, and three abortion clinics, including two Planned Parenthood affiliates she named in a letter to an HHS official, violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“These violations occurred when the abortion clinics disclosed patients’ individually identifiable health information to StemExpress to facilitate the TPB’s [tissue procurement business] efforts to procure human fetal tissue for resale,” Blackburn wrote.

Blackburn, in a second letter to a separate HHS official, charged that StemExpress violated federal regulations for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which oversee research involving human subjects and must be registered with HHS.

“The latest leak from Chair Blackburn’s runaway investigation is further evidence that this Panel should be brought to an end,” a spokesperson for the panel’s Democratic lawmakers said in a statement to Rewire. “In their letters … Republicans again cite unverified ‘documents and testimony’ from so-called ‘informants’ to allege wrongdoing by StemExpress, the company targeted by anti-abortion extremists in their fraudulent videos and their Republican allies in this so-called ‘investigation.’ StemExpress offered to appear and answer the Panel’s questions months ago, but Republicans have refused to take them up on that offer lest they lose their last excuse for continuing this unjustified witch hunt.”

StemExpress denied violating any laws. “Appropriate consents were made for every fetal tissue donation,” the company said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to answer any questions from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or any other agency related to Representative Blackburn’s continued unfounded accusations.”

The letters included lengthy attachments of documents from StemExpress, and in some cases, identified outside researchers. Names and contact information included researchers from top U.S. universities and at least one hospital, and detailed the fetal tissue specimens involved in their work. The attachments also named StemExpress and Planned Parenthood employees.

Blackburn’s spokesperson told Rewire in April that the select panel needed the names of people involved in fetal tissue transactions and research in order to have a full understanding of what the transactions and research involve.

The spokesperson in April said the panel’s subpoenas refrained from asking for patient information. Investigators proposed using pseudonyms to prevent the names of lower-level staff witnesses from appearing in public or in committee publications, the spokesperson said.

The latest documents accompanying the letters included some redactions of StemExpress documents but failed in other areas. Researchers have expressed concerns about their privacy and safety. The HIPAA protections that Blackburn cited as justification for her HHS request only cover patient privacy and do not extend to providers, researchers, or their support staff.

A HHS spokesperson told Rewire that the agency has received the letters and will review them.

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