A special congressional committee investigating abortion practices has uncovered “dark and disturbing” activities that its Republican members believe violate the law and women’s rights, says Missouri Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler.
Hartzler, a conservative lawmaker from Harrisonville, Missouri, who opposes abortion rights, serves on the House Select Panel on Infant Lives, which is expected to issue a final report by the end of the year.
“We discovered this entire hidden industry,” Hartzler said in an interview.
“You can go online and order these baby body parts just as if you were on Amazon.com,” the congresswoman said, referring to websites where researchers can obtain products such as fetal liver cells from procurement companies.
Hartzler and her fellow Republicans on the panel say such companies illegally profit from fetal tissue.
But the panel’s Democrats say the GOP-led investigation has become a partisan witch hunt that has wasted more than $1.5 million.
The probe has intimidated researchers, health care providers and companies without offering any evidence of illegal activities, Democrats say. They say the panel should disband.
The Panel on Infant Lives was formed 15 months ago, after anti-abortion activists at the Center for Medical Progress released undercover videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue.
“This has been an intensive effort to look into an industry that most people didn’t even know existed,” Hartzler said.
Thirteen state investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, including in Kansas and Missouri. Eight more states declined to investigate.
It is legal for abortion providers to accept reimbursement for the handling and transportation of fetal tissue to researchers, but not to profit from its sale. Since October 2015, Planned Parenthood affiliates stopped accepting even legal reimbursement for fetal tissue donated to medical researchers.
Hartzler told McClatchy that the committee has referred more than nine cases to various agencies or attorneys general for criminal action. Some of the referrals deal with alleged violations of the federal and state laws that prohibit profits from sales of fetal tissues, Harzler said.
No criminal charges have resulted from any of the referrals so far.
Among the referrals:
▪ Republicans accused University of New Mexico of violating the state’s Anatomical Gift Act by receiving tissue from a late-term abortion clinic. New Mexico’s attorney general’s office is investigating. The university denies any wrongdoing.
▪ The Orange County District Attorney’s Office in California sued DV Biologics and DaVinci Biosciences, biomedical tissue procurement companies, accusing them of profiting from the sale of fetal tissue and of violating California sales tax law. The companies’ attorney has said they obeyed all regulations and did not make a profit.
▪ Republicans on the panel accuse Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of breaking the law by selling fetal tissue to the University of Texas. Planned Parenthood denies wrongdoing and says it acted according to law.
Planned Parenthood has never profited from the donation of fetal tissue for use in medical research, said Dana Singiser, vice president of government relations for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“These investigations are nothing more than a partisan attack on Planned Parenthood and women’s access to safe and legal abortion,” Singiser said. “Moreover, as investigations by three other congressional committees and investigations in 13 states, including a grand jury in Texas, have shown, Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong. It’s time to end this waste of taxpayer money.”
▪ Hartzler and other Republicans on the panel also asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to look into allegations that the California company StemExpress had violated women’s right to privacy in order to harvest fetal tissue.
“In at least one instance, they go in, and without the permission of the woman who is in the waiting room, they go through her medical file to match up her unborn baby’s age and gender to see if it matches the order,” Hartzler said. “And then they go out into the waiting room to obtain the woman’s consent. It’s a clear (privacy) violation.”
The procurement company’s technician promises the woman that if she will donate products of the procedure, that will find a cure for diseases, Hartzler said.
“Then they have a procedure: Harvest the parts, put it in the shipping containers and ship it out,” she said.
So far the panel has uncovered no cases in Missouri, Hartzler said.
Hartzler wouldn’t reveal what the committee will recommend, but she said Republican members would propose legislation.
At a minimum, she said, tax dollars should not go to entities or organizations that provide abortions.
Federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money to pay for abortion services except in cases of rape or incest or to protect a woman’s life. But organizations like Planned Parenthood can use public funding as reimbursed through Medicaid to provide other women’s health services such as mammograms, routine health exams or prenatal care to low-income patients.
Democrats on the panel have published their own findings in a 112-page report that accuses Republicans of abusing congressional authority during the investigation. They say Republicans issued 42 “unjustifiable subpoenas” that violated House rules, refused to give Democrats access to the panel’s records and left Democrats out of negotiations, briefings and interviews.
Republicans, they added, put the safety of researchers and doctors at risk by publicizing individual targets of their investigation.
The result is a chilling effect on research involving fetal tissue, said Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.
“That’s just tragic because it’s slowing down the prospect of finding new therapies for people who really are alive and sick,” she said.
Charo said it was misleading to talk about fetal tissue as “baby body parts,” which made people imagine disembodied arms and hands and legs.
“This is tissue,” she said. “It’s not recognizable. . . . The imagery that’s being used makes it sound as if a full-grown baby is being injured, and nothing can be further from the truth.”
Charo added that women who donate fetal tissue choose to do so only after deciding to get abortions.
“After a woman decides to have an abortion she can be asked, how do you want to handle the remains,” Charo said. “It’s the same concept whether we’re talking about the use of tissue remaining after an abortion for research or the use of human tissue or organs after the death of an adult. In both cases, it’s a voluntary decision taken by an adult.”
To Hartzler, the panel’s work puts a needed spotlight on the fetal tissue procurement business and its relationship with abortion providers.
“Women are directly impacted by this as they are the ones who have the right to have abortions, and they need to know and be aware of the potential deceptions that are out there,” Hartzler said.