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Liberal lawmakers on House panel targeting abortion providers call for investigation into alleged leak of private information

Liberal lawmakers on a House subcommittee targeting abortion providers are calling for an investigation to determine whether conservative members on the panel have been wrongfully leaking information to antiabortion-rights groups, CQ HealthBeat News reports.

According to CQ HealthBeat News, liberal lawmakers filed the letter amid ongoing efforts to add an amendment to a legislative branch appropriations measure (HR 5325) that would disband the subcommittee. The House is expected to vote on the bill this week (Mershon, CQ HealthBeat News, 6/7 [subscription required]).

Background

The subcommittee is the fourth House committee to investigate Planned Parenthood following the release of a series of misleading videos targeting the organization. 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 subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the panel has subpoena powers that it will use in consultation with the House speaker. The subcommittee could recommend changes to laws and regulations based on its findings.

The subcommittee has issued several subpoenas requesting the names of fetal tissue researchers, spurring criticism from medical groups and liberal lawmakers who are concerned that the subpoenas could put researchers, students and medical professionals at risk of antiabortion-rights violence.

In April, conservative members presented a report alleging that an unidentified abortion provider and an unidentified tissue procurement company violated federal bans on the sale of fetal tissue. Although authors of the report redacted the procurement company's name, the report contains information that identifies the company as StemExpress.

Liberal lawmakers criticized the report for failing to include sourcing information and potentially leading to "inaccurate and misleading" conclusions. Further, almost all liberal lawmakers in the House signed a recent letter calling for the panel's disbandment.

Last month, Blackburn called on HHS to investigate StemExpress, as well as multiple abortion clinics (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/2).

Liberal members call for separate investigation

In a letter sent to Blackburn on Tuesday, liberal committee members alleged that conservative lawmakers have been leaking private information stemming from their probe into Planned Parenthood to antiabortion-rights groups.

In the letter, the liberal lawmakers -- led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee -- alleged that antiabortion-rights groups have obtained the names and contact information of individuals being investigated "despite such information not being public" (Ferris, The Hill, 6/7). They also noted that abortion-rights opponents had obtained confidential information regarding a legal team representing one of the entities under investigation.

The lawmakers wrote, "Communications from lawyers representing an entity that you have targeted in your investigation indicate that -- in addition to relying on information from anti-abortion extremists -- [conservative members of the subcommittee] may be funneling information back to those individuals and groups" (CQ HealthBeat News, 6/7).

The letter continued, "It is troubling enough that you are threatening to hold law-abiding doctors and researchers in contempt in order to obtain" sensitive data, including "information -- such as records of victims of rape and personal financial information -- that Congress has no right or need to know." The lawmakers wrote, "Your refusal to adopt rules to foreclose the additional risk that highly sensitive and personal information might be released publicly or more selectively passed into the hands of anti-abortion extremists is inexcusable."

Reiterating their call for the subcommittee's disbandment, liberal lawmakers concluded the letter by calling on Blackburn to "investigate whether information provided to Select Panel [conservative lawmakers] is being disclosed to anti-abortion extremists and take steps to address and prevent any such leaks" (Subcommittee letter, 6/7).