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House subcommittee targeting abortion providers issues 17 new subpoenas

A special House committee investigating abortion providers in the United States on Wednesday issued 17 subpoenas requesting the names of fetal tissue researchers, drawing criticism from the panel's liberal members, the New York Times reports (Harris, New York Times, 3/24).

Background

The subcommittee is the fourth House committee to investigate Planned Parenthood following the release of a series of misleading videos targeting the organization. This specially created investigative panel is tasked with investigating an even broader target: providers of abortion care.

The subcommittee is allowed to probe, among other topics, federal funding for health care providers who also provide abortion services and providers' practices for abortions later in pregnancy. The resolution (H Res 461) that created the subcommittee gave it the ability to investigate "medical procedures and business practices used by entities involved in fetal tissue procurement" and "any other relevant matters with respect to fetal tissue procurement."

According to Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the panel has subpoena powers that it will use in consultation with the House speaker, who also oversees the panel's budget and schedule. The panel will be dissolved 30 days after it submits a report based on the investigation's findings. The subcommittee could recommend changes to laws and regulations based on its findings.

Last month, the panel subpoenaed Southwestern Women's Clinic, which provides abortion care in Albuquerque; Stem Express, a California-based biomedical research company; and the University of New Mexico. Liberal members of the subcommittee, who previously expressed concern that the investigation could endanger the privacy and security of abortion providers, denounced the subpoenas and said they had not been consulted prior to their release (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/3).

Latest developments

According to the Times, Blackburn is issuing the subpoenas to medical supply companies and labs on behalf of the subcommittee. The subpoenas ask the organizations to submit the names of people working with fetal tissue, including administrators, graduate students working at the facilities, lab technicians and researchers (New York Times, 3/24).

Blackburn has not disclosed which organizations are being subpoenaed or the reason why the subcommittee is sending subpoenas to more entities (Norman, Politico Pro [subscription required], 3/24). Similarly, liberal members of the subcommittee said Blackburn has not informed them of which organizations are receiving subpoenas.

However, according to The Hill, at least some of the subpoenas are being issued to organizations that removed identifying information from documents released in response to the subcommittee's initial requests for information (Sullivan, The Hill, 3/24). For example, the University of California-San Diego noted in materials it submitted to the subcommittee that the institution "redacted individually identifying information" because of security concerns (New York Times, 3/24).

Liberal lawmakers lambast latest round of subpoenas

Liberal lawmakers on the subcommittee condemned the latest round of subpoenas, reiterating concerns about the privacy and security of individuals involved with fetal tissue research. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said, "There is no legitimate need for the names of researchers, students, clinic personnel and doctors; and amassing a database that could be released publicly at any time is a threat to anyone whose name might be on that list" (The Hill, 3/24).

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also criticized the subpoenas, stating that conservative lawmakers on the subcommittee are "threatening people's lives."

Researchers report dwindling resources

According to the Times, medical researchers, comparing the investigation to a "witch hunt," say it threatens ongoing research into multiple illnesses and reported that the investigation into fetal tissue research has intimidated suppliers, many of whom are refusing to continue to provide researchers with tissue.

For example, Larry Goldstein, scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in San Diego, said during the subcommittee's first hearing that researchers had to suspend work on a project aimed at curing multiple sclerosis because they no longer were able to source fetal tissue.

The Times reports that Colorado State University in July sent a letter to Congress stating the university would stop providing fetal tissue "pending the outcome of the congressional inquiry."

Similarly, Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston now is rejecting all research applications for fetal tissue resulting from abortion care provided at the hospital, though hospital officials said the decision was not linked to the investigation. However, the Times reports that hospital officials asked the Times to inform them when it would publish coverage of their decision so they could bolster security, citing instances of violence in the past.

David Moore, senior director of government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), said, "We've been trying to educate policy makers about why [fetal tissue research] is needed and why it can't be replicated in other ways."

According to the Times, AAMC joined more than 50 other medical schools and groups in a letter expressing "grave concerns" about laws targeting fetal tissue research. Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics in a letter to Blackburn explained that researchers used fetal tissue to develop vaccines for illness such as chickenpox, hepatitis A, polio, rabies and rubella (New York Times, 3/24).