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In first hearing, GOP panel casts doubt on fetal tissue research

Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), seen here in July, leads the Select Investigative Panel on fetal tissue matters. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Republicans on the special House panel investigating fetal tissue procurement and research practices aggressively questioned the morality and necessity of that research in the panel’s first hearing Wednesday, while Democrats sought to portray the probe as a politically motivated witchhunt.

The Select Investigative Panel, created by Republican leaders last year following the release of undercover videos produced by anti-abortion activists, gaveled to order in an underground Capitol hearing room while, just across the street, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the most closely watched abortion case in 24 years.

Wednesday’s hearing was set to explore the ethical implications of using fetal tissue in biomedical research but before the panel heard from six expert witnesses — four selected by Republicans and two by Democrats– members clashed over the series of document requests Republicans made to more than 30 entities. Those requests, made by subpoena in some cases, include demands for names of researchers, technicians and medical personnel involved in fetal tissue handling.

[Dozens of groups targeted as House fetal tissue probe accelerates]

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, said the decision by chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) to subpoena the names was an “abuse of her position” that is “frankly reminiscent of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s abusive tactics.” She noted the November shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, where the gunman used the phrase “no more baby parts” to explain his actions after killing three.

“Linking individual’s names to an investigation that the Republicans describe as examining the ‘harvesting of baby body parts’ and the ‘horrific practices’ of abortion providers puts people in danger,” she said. “Our words and our actions matter.”

Blackburn replied that the panel is “entitled to the information,” and a Democratic motion to quash the three subpoenas issued thus far was defeated on a party-line vote.

The panel emerged from the controversy created last year by undercover videos taken of Planned Parenthood officials talking about the use of fetal tissue, which anti-abortion activists alleged the officials were illegally attempting to sell. Conservative House members nearly ground the 2015 budget process to a halt – in the process ousting then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) – over their demands that federal funding be stripped from the group because it performs some abortions.

Several state investigations have found no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood, and the House panel has not yet sought documents or testimony from the organization. However, the panel’s brief has greatly expanded: Blackburn’s own statements Wednesday, as well as the testimony of the four GOP-invited witnesses, appeared to be the beginnings of a case for broad new restrictions on the research use of aborted fetuses.

“There should be no doubt that the use of cadaveric fetal organs and tissue for research and clinical applications raises serious moral and ethical concerns, concerns that are heightened when the organs and tissue are obtained as the result of elective abortion,” read the prepared testimony of one witness, Paige Comstock Cunningham of Trinity International University.

Another witness, Patrick Lee of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, testified that not only is it “unjust for the government to fund or encourage elective abortions” and to allow the use of fetal tissue resulting from those abortions, but that women who have abortions should have no option to donate their fetus: “Women who choose to have direct abortions by that act forfeit the moral standing needed for being a proxy decision-maker in regard to the disposition of their baby’s remains.”

Blackburn said in a Feb. 10 interview that the panel would take a broad look at the state of medical research, the practices of fetal tissue procurement, and the ethical dimensions at their intersection.

“It’s time for us to sit down and look at the changes and what has happened with research and see what a way forward ought to be,” she said. “When you go back and you look at the history of it, you realize, yeah, it’s been a while since we have looked at this.”

The effort could inject bioethics into politics e to a degree not seen in more than a decade, after President George W. Bush strictly limited federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — a decision which emerged as a significant issue during his 2004 re-election campaign.

Blackburn suggested in the interview that recent medical advances are mostly due to research involving adult stem cells and that the panel’s review might conclude that the use of fresh fetal tissue is not scientifically necessary.

Several of the Republican-invited witnesses on Wednesday cast doubt on the necessity of fetal tissue research. G. Kevin Donovan of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, for instance, said that tissue might be harvested from spontaneous miscarriages, thus avoiding the moral implications of using aborted fetuses. Kathleen M. Schmainda of the Medical College of Wisconsin said the research potential of fetal tissue experiments was “largely overexaggerated,” noting that only 0.25 percent of the National Institutes of Health research budget funded fetal-tissue experiments. “This is not going to change the direction of science,” she said.

Donovan told the panel that “not all scientific experimentation has been praiseworthy” and mentioned the medical experimentation of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

“No one would want to associate our current scientific studies involving the human fetus with such egregious breaches of research ethics,” he said.

Donovan was later pressed by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) on whether he considered contemporary fetal tissue research to be morally equivalent to those infamous experiments.

“I think that we need to be very careful so that we don’t do that,” Donovan replied.

“Do you think that they are equal, yes or no?” DeGette asked.

“Maybe,” Donovan said.

The witnesses invited by Democrats refuted the idea that fetal tissue is either unnecessary or ethically problematic.

That position also won support in a Tuesday letter to the panel from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which wrote that it “strongly supports continued federal funding for fetal tissue research” based on “the substantial historical and future potential benefit on child health.”

Lawrence S.B. Goldstein of the University of California San Diego, who testified on behalf of the American Society for Cell Biology and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, prepared this testimony: “My message is simple: fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded play a vital role in modern cutting edge medical research. These fetal tissues and cells cannot be replaced by embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed stem cells, or adult stem cells.”

Goldstein cited ongoing research into potential therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and spinal cord injuries, as well as efforts to grow new kidneys: “We need all different types of cells to do research, because we don’t know what is best.”

While much of the hearing focused on the larger implications of that research, some Republicans concentrated on the particular practices of those handling that tissue — previewing what is likely to be an ongoing line of GOP inquiry.

Republicans highlighted several documents they obtained through their investigation, including an April 2014 email between undisclosed parties discussing a researcher’s need for a “first trimester human embryo, preferably around 8 weeks, and up to 10 weeks gestation.”

Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) suggested the email was evidence “there effectively is an for human parts, including entire babies.”

“This is not dignity,” she said. “This is not respect for human life.”

One of the Democratic witnesses, R. Alta Charo, a bioethics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the language in the email was the “same kind of clinical, dispassionate language” typically used in medical research on human tissue.

The timing of Wednesday’s hearing also emerged as a partisan issue. Not only did it coincide with the closely watched Supreme Court argument, but it also conflicted with a House hearing on the government’s response to the Zika virus. Top government officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services testified.

The Select Panel’s Democrats asked Blackburn last month to reschedule the fetal tissue hearing so they could attend the hearing on Zika, which has been linked to infant microcephaly, a devastating birth defect.

In a letter to Blackburn, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the Select Panel’s top Democrat, noted the Republican practice of referring to the committee as the “Select Panel on Infant Lives.”

“Given the disproportionate and devastating impact of the virus on women and infants, having our members fully engaged and participating in congressional work on Zika should be a shared interest for all of us,” Schakowsky wrote. “Indeed, it would be unfortunate if members of the Select Panel were unable to attend a hearing on a matter with such clear, negative impact on infants.”

The hearing was not rescheduled.

Schakowsky asked Goldstein on Wednesday if new restrictions on fetal tissue research would delay a vaccine or cure for  Zika or  microcephaly.

Goldstein said any crackdown on the research would “absolutely delay” efforts to address Zika.

“If you want to understand the Zika virus, the most efficient place to start is with the fetal tissue that is infected,” he said. “I think you have to go to the source if you want to understand what’s going wrong.”