WASHINGTON — A company that helps researchers obtain human tissue has advertised its services as financially profitable for abortion clinics, according to documents revealed by congressional investigators Wednesday.
Under federal law, payments for transporting and storing fetal tissue for medical research is allowed only to cover expenses, not to turn a profit.
But the documents revealed by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives show that at least one procurement business used marketing materials to encourage abortion clinics to advance biomedical research in a way that would help them make a profit.
The panel also provided an image from an unidentified website that shows a drop-down menu where researchers can click on what types of organs and tissues are needed.
“This does not sound to me like tissue donation for research — this sounds like someone who wants to make money — a lot of money — selling baby body parts,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., chair of the House panel.
Democrats characterize the panel’s investigation as an attack on legal abortion providers and women’s health care, and they say the documents don’t indicate any laws were broken. For example, references to profitability appear on documents that mention a variety of services, including fetal and adult tissue donations unrelated to abortion.
“Not only do I believe that this panel is an inappropriate and wasteful misuse of federal resources, but I am gravely concerned that it also puts researchers, providers and patients across this country at risk,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who testified at the hearing.
Democrats argued that the documents in question, especially those that include pricing information, don’t prove a profit motive and may instead represent lawful, reimbursable costs associated with fetal tissue research.
The select panel, part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was created last year to investigate abortion practices in the wake of undercover videos that suggested Planned Parenthood had profited from the sale of fetal tissue from abortions. The group has denied the allegation.
Democrats and Republicans did agree at Wednesday’s contentious hearing that fetal tissue from abortions should not be bought and sold for profit. A 1993 law, passed with bipartisan support, expressly prohibits the practice. But there was a partisan divide over whether procurement companies routinely violate the law by charging more than necessary to deliver fetal tissue from abortion clinics to medical research labs.
Witnesses called by Republicans testified that the documents revealed Wednesday contain enough evidence to prosecute.
“Based on my review of the exhibits, a competent, ethical federal prosecutor could establish probable cause that both the abortion clinics and the procurement business violated the statute, aided and abetted one another in violating the statute, and likely conspired together to violate the statute,” said Brian Patrick Lennon, a former federal prosecutor from Michigan.
The documents’ validity was a key focus of the hearing.
Democrats released a letter from a lawyer for StemExpress, which supplies fetal and adult human tissue to biomedical researchers, asking Republicans to withdraw the documents because their authenticity is in doubt and GOP lawmakers are using them in a misleading way.
The House panel redacted portions of the documents, and StemExpress isn’t mentioned in the unredacted sections. But some of the documents “appear to be versions of StemExpress documents that were stolen,” the letter states.
The company also says some documents were created by the same anti-abortion activist responsible for the undercover videos, which were found to be heavily edited and misleading. A Texas grand jury has indicted two of the people who made the controversial undercover videos.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., tried unsuccessfully to derail Wednesday’s hearing by having the documents withdrawn.
Democrats said any investigation into the sale of fetal tissue should be handled by the Justice Department, not Congress. They noted that Congress looked into similar allegations in 2000 — and prosecutors in 20 states have done the same — with no charges being filed.
StemExpress’ letter to Congress says fetal tissue procurement accounts for 1% of the company’s total revenue, and the company lost money in 2014 and 2015 on that part of its business.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said StemExpress officials have offered to testify before Congress to counter what the company believes is manipulated evidence.
“We agree that we should get to the evidence but that is not what this hearing was about,” Schakowsky said. “This is a continuation of a witch hunt that begins with the fact that (Republicans) are anti-abortion… and do not believe in fetal tissue research because it follows from abortions, which they oppose.”
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., a member of the special House panel, said the documents show that any payment from the procurement company to the abortion clinic is pure profit because packaging and shipping the tissue is done by an employee of the procurement company.
“There’s nothing to indicate the abortion clinic has incurred any expenses,” Black said.
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