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House panel recommends cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, reigniting old debate

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chairwoman of the House Select Panel on Infant Lives, said she was confident that President-elect Donald Trump would sign legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

A House panel formed by Republicans to investigate the procurement of human fetal tissue for medical research has recommended stripping federal funds from Planned Parenthood, heralding a new congressional assault on the nation’s largest provider of abortions and women’s health care.

The GOP majority on the Select Investigative Panel included the recommendation in the 471-page final report, which was issued Tuesday on the dissolution of the panel. It was formed in 2015 after antiabortion activists recorded a series of undercover videos that they said documented abuses by abortion providers and intermediaries that provide fetal tissue to researchers.

Over strong objections from Democrats, medical groups and abortion rights supporters, Republicans issued subpoenas to dozens of clinics, procurement firms and research institutions. Their final report suggests that some clinics and firms are illegally profiting from fetal-tissue transactions and that their business arrangements could create an incentive to perform more abortions.

Dozens of groups targeted as House fetal-tissue probe accelerates

While GOP panel members denied targeting Planned Parenthood as they conducted their investigation, the report closely scrutinizes several of the organization’s affiliates, accusing them of “careless management” and “a general disinterest in clinical integrity.”

“My hope is that this is going to provide the information that is necessary for action to be taken,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the panel’s chairwoman, said in an interview Wednesday. “This will be a Congress and an administration that will be known for standing for the women, for the protection of unborn children, and the protection of life.”

The panel's Democrats preemptively blasted the findings in a 114-page report of their own, released in December, that challenged the Republicans' key claims. They criticized the GOP members' "McCarthy-era tactics," accused them of relying on "unsourced, unverified documents" and argued that there is "no legitimate basis" to strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood's medical services.

“Republicans spent nearly $1.6 million taxpayer dollars chasing inflammatory lies being peddled by antiabortion extremists,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the panel’s top Democrat, who said the body “leaves behind a legacy of lies, intimidation and procedural misconduct.”

The panel has been sharply partisan from the outset: It was created on a party-line vote after some Republicans threatened a government shutdown unless Planned Parenthood was stripped of federal funding. Republicans have styled it as the “Select Panel on Infant Lives,” while some Democrats preferred to call it the “Select Panel to Attack Women’s Health.”

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

One GOP recommendation is to ban federal funding for research on fetal tissue obtained through elective abortions while providing for the donation of miscarried fetuses for research through existing organ-donation programs. Another would have Congress direct the National Institutes of Health to develop new guidelines for the use of human fetal tissue.

Other recommendations include having Congress “take appropriate measures” to ensure that the Justice Department prosecute violations of the federal ban on profiting from the sale of fetal tissue and beefing up protections for “born-alive” infants.

But the most politically charged implications of the report are certain to surround Planned Parenthood, whose affiliates performed 324,000 abortions in 2014 among more than 9 million other discrete medical services.

The group reported receiving $553 million in government funding that year, about half of its total revenue. Congress has barred federal funding for abortions since 1976, but health providers that offer abortions are eligible for Medicaid reimbursements and federal family-planning grants for other services.

But antiabortion lawmakers have long challenged the notion of abortion providers getting federal funding of any sort. “What we just want to do is just put that clear line there,” Blackburn said. “It is as simple as that: To be sure that [federal funds] are not going into abortion services.”

Here’s what happens if Congress ends funding for Planned Parenthood

Roughly 40 percent of Planned Parenthood’s funding could be at risk with a Republican Congress willing to pass defunding legislation and an incoming Republican president willing to sign it. The panel’s report stands to give antiabortion lawmakers a rallying point as they push to include that measure in a legislative package aimed at repealing President Obama’s health-care reform law that is expected to pass this year.

A Planned Parenthood executive on Wednesday called the GOP report “nothing more than a partisan attack on Planned Parenthood and women’s access to safe and legal abortion” and noted that investigations in 13 states and by several other congressional committees found no wrongdoing.

“Planned Parenthood has never profited while facilitating its patients’ choice to donate fetal tissue for use in important medical research,” said Dana Singiser, the organization’s vice president for public policy and government affairs, who noted that only about 1 percent of its health centers offer the option to donate.

Congress is not the only entity that Planned Parenthood and other organizations targeted by the panel have to be concerned about. Panel Republicans issued 15 referrals to federal and state law enforcement authorities over potential criminal violations, and Blackburn said she expects that the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will closely examine those.

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

But it remains unclear how aggressive Trump will be regarding Planned Parenthood, an organization he has praised in the past, and whether he will push to defund it as part of his larger health-care plans. A bill repealing the Affordable Care Act that was vetoed by President Obama early last year included a provision targeting Planned Parenthood.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence did not mention defunding the group when he went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to discuss the GOP’s health-care plans, according to several lawmakers.

But Blackburn, a member of Trump’s transition team, said she was confident he would sign defunding legislation. “I truly think that Donald Trump is going to continue to speak on behalf of life and stand for life,” she said.

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