Policy

Republicans Say Democrats Obstructing Fetal Tissue Probe

Democrats ramp up efforts to disband panel leading the investigation

Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn said the panel's efforts have been hampered by Democratic obstruction. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican members on a controversial panel investigating fetal tissue donation practices plan to double down on their efforts to uncover documents from those providers. They slammed their Democratic counterparts Tuesday for what they called "inappropriate" attempts to obstruct those efforts so far.  

The panel, formed after the release last summer of sting videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue, outlined in an 88-page report Thursday industry practices it says are more motivated by profit than women's health. In a news conference, Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said many of the committee's efforts have been slowed by Democratic obstruction.  

Democrats advised companies and individuals not to comply with Republican subpoenas, Blackburn said.  

"That type of participation is inappropriate. It does not meet the standards of the Energy and Commerce Committee or the rules of the House," she said. "It's imperative that we get the accounting documents and the records to show the participation between the medical practices and the abortion clinics and the business practices of the procurement organizations."  

She declined to say whether she would pursue holding noncompliant individuals in contempt of Congress.  

Much of the Thursday report summarizes findings the committee has already released, including details about how a tissue procurement company, StemExpress, and an abortion provider illegally profited from the sale of fetal tissue. The panel also has accused StemExpress of using invalid consent forms and misleading researchers to believe it had review board approval.  

StemExpress attorneys have denied those charges and questioned the legality of the documents the committee used in its investigation.  

Democrats, who have long decried the panel's investigation as predatory, partisan and unethical, also ramped up their efforts to disband it. This week, Senate Democrats sponsored a resolution to redirect the panel's funding — which includes $790,000 from the House reserve fund — toward combating the Zika virus.  

“If the panel were just a waste of taxpayer money and congressional time, it would be bad enough. But this has serious and devastating effects on real people," ranking Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said in a statement Thursday. “Their interim report, which Democrats learned about through a press advisory, proves that this panel needs to be disbanded now, before more lives are put at risk.”  

A Democratic aide pushed back on Blackburn's assertion that the minority had circulated any memoranda urging noncompliance. The aide also said Democratic staff had specifically disavowed that action to Republican staff, including in email correspondence shared with Roll Call that was timestamped Wednesday.  

Also on Thursday, 50 reproductive rights and civil liberties groups, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, chimed in with a letter calling for the disbandment of the panel.  

The panel has also investigated the relationships between abortion clinics and certain research universities, including the University of New Mexico, the University of Minnesota, and Baylor College of Medicine. The report offers some additional detail about several such relationships.  

The panel also included new research pushing back on an argument brought up at several of its hearings that fetal tissue is critical for the development of vaccines, including the polio vaccine. The panel's report concluded that no fetal tissue donations made since 1970 have contributed to the production of a vaccine.  

The release of the interim report comes as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin pushed for legislation (S 304) aimed at allowing health care workers to refuse to perform abortions in a relatively rare speech on the House floor. That bill takes specific aim at a California law that requires all health insurance plans to cover abortion, which anti-abortion groups say violates current policy.

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