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GOP congresswoman meets with Trump as fetal tissue investigation moves to a close

Marsha Blackburn is congratulated after being re-elected to the House on Nov. 8. Blackburn, an early Donald Trump supporter, met with the president-elect Tuesday in New York. (Shelley Mays/The Tennessean via AP)

President-elect Donald Trump met Tuesday with the chairwoman of a controversial congressional committee that has spent a year probing links between abortion providers and medical investigators and is expected to issue a report in the coming weeks that could call for new curbs on research using fetal tissue.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was an early Trump supporter and visited Trump Tower Tuesday to discuss his coming administration. She also heads the Select Panel on Infant Lives, a special House committee created by Republicans last year after anti-abortion activists released secretly recorded videos they claimed illustrated an illicit trade in fetal tissue.

Blackburn said in a statement released by her office Monday that she expected “to discuss a broad range of policy issues, the transition, and to continue helping him choose the best people for his administration” during her visit with Trump. “It was an honor to be a surrogate for Mr. Trump during his hard-fought campaign and to subsequently be asked to serve on the Executive Committee for his Transition Team,” she said.

After the morning meeting, Blackburn told reporters she “had a great visit.”

Not mentioned was the Select Panel, whose authority will expire when the Congress adjourns next month and thus must finish its work as soon as next week. The panel has held two public hearings and has issued subpoenas to numerous organizations, ranging from abortion providers to research institutions to “procurement entities” that arrange transfers of fetal tissue.

Dozens of groups targeted as House fetal tissue probe accelerates

The panel’s Republicans have aggressively questioned whether groups are illegally profiting from transactions involving tissue from aborted fetuses and whether the research involving that tissue should be considered “mainstream” science. The minority Democrats, meanwhile, have cast the investigation as an ideological “witch hunt” aimed at undermining legal abortion providers and intimidating researchers who are pursuing life-saving medical cures.

“You have these precious children that are aborted and then these parts are being sold,” Blackburn told The Washington Post in February as the panel started its work. “People want to give this a good and thorough look.”

In the hearings, subpoenas and referrals to outside authorities, panel Republicans have indicated they are interested in at least two particular areas.

One is the relationship between researchers at the University of New Mexico and an Albuquerque abortion provider, Southwest Women’s Options — that matter was referred to New Mexico’s attorney general for criminal prosecution for alleged violations of the state’s anatomical gift act. Both the university and the clinic have denied any wrongdoing. An interim report from panel Republicans identified four other universities with relationships with abortion providers.

The other focus involves the relationship between Planned Parenthood clinics in California and StemExpress, a firm that procures medical research specimens and has been a recent target of anti-abortion activists. Republicans have suggested that those organizations have violated the federal law against profiting from fetal tissue sales, and patient privacy regulations as well as ethical standards on the outside review of medical research. Again, both Planned Parenthood and StemExpress have denied those charges.

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

“In some of the abortion clinics we are investigating, the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives has discovered that abortion clinics routinely contract with a middleman company like StemExpress to pay the abortion clinic for each baby body part and then resell them at a 500 to 700 percent markup,” Blackburn wrote in a June op-ed.

In September, the panel voted on party lines to recommend contempt charges for StemExpress and its chief executive, Cate Dyer, for not complying with a panel subpoena. That measure has not advanced to the House floor.

But the election of Trump, along with GOP congressional majorities, has transformed the ability of Republicans to act on the Select Panel’s recommendations. The panel’s jurisdiction does not allow it to directly write legislation, but it can make suggestions to other standing House committees on changes to federal laws and regulations.

One key provision it might propose altering is a federal law making it “unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration” — in other words, selling fetal tissue for profit. But the law makes exceptions for “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage,” and the panel could recommend tightening or eliminating those exceptions.

181 Democrats join call to end House fetal-tissue probe

The panel could also suggest an expansion of the Hyde Amendment, the provision banning taxpayer funding for abortions that has been attached to government spending bills since 1976, to prohibit federal funding for research involving the aborted fetal remains. Federal regulations on research ethics oversight and patient consent could also be questioned.

Democrats, meanwhile, are preparing their own report, documenting the benefits of medical research involving fetal tissue and the alleged abuses of panel Republicans.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the panel’s top Democrat, said last week the public could be surprised by the scope of the recommendations made by Select Panel Republicans.

“It is the law of the land that abortion is legal, and they treat everyone who’s engaged in really positive activities like Planned Parenthood, like scientists, as criminals,” she said. “We’re going to push back as hard as we can in the House. We do hopefully have somewhat of a firewall in the Senate. We’ll see. And do everything we can to mobilize outside forces who support our positions to call on their legislators, call on their senators, call on the president not to set this country back.”