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.
Reports have previously linked the two: Media Matters for America reported that Blackburn’s exhibits at the panel’s April hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” closely mirrored those in the CMP attack videos. Screens showing select images from the same exhibits flanked Blackburn as she delivered a conservative call to action against “baby body parts” in June at the faith-based Road to Majority conference.
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.
Researchers’ Ethics Counter Blackburn’s Allegations
Researchers’ concerns extend beyond their personal well-being to the chilling effect of the select panel’s investigation on scientific advancements. Blackburn has downplayed the importance of fetal tissue in research, which is legal and heavily regulated, amid other misconceptions about the ethics of “baby body parts.”
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.