KUNM

U.S. House Panel Subpoenas UNMHSC And Local Abortion Provider

Feb 18, 2016

A congressional investigation into researchers who use fetal tissue and the abortion clinics that provide the tissue has recently expanded to include New Mexico.

Lawmakers on a special House panel have subpoenaed documents from the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and Southwestern Women’s Options, a women’s healthcare clinic that provides abortion services in Albuquerque.

Michael Coleman of the Albuquerque Journal’s Washington Bureau has been reporting on the investigation. He says the House panel is requesting things like laboratory equipment records, banking records, and names of staff members.

Coleman told KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel that has sparked concerns about making information about who works with fetal tissue available to the public. 

COLEMAN: So, you know, you look at the climate, the national climate with respect to abortion and it’s very emotional and very heated. There have been incidents of violence. Clinics and doctors have been targeted. And, you know, they’re just concerned that if information is made public, that more of that sort of thing could happen.

KUNM: Based on what the House panel is investigating, what do you think they’re looking for in the documents?

COLEMAN: They want to get to the bottom of whether these researchers and abortion providers are breaking the law, because under federal law, abortion providers can’t sell fetal tissue, but they could transfer it for purposes of medical research.

Obviously, the researchers at the UNM Health Sciences Center and other researchers around the country who work with this fetal tissue contend that the work they do is ethical and that it’s critically important to solving the riddles of diseases and helping to cure people of diseases. They feel that they have a real, strong moral ground to stand on.

KUNM: Mike, you’ve spoken with several members of this special House panel. Fill us in on what they are saying. They’re not all in agreement.

COLEMAN: No, and U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, she’s the Tennessee Republican who is the head of this panel, she said on Tuesday that the subpoenas are “needed to get the facts about the medical practices of abortion service providers and the business practices of the procurement organizations  who sell baby body parts.” To some that was pretty inflammatory language. I think it goes to the whole emotional element of this debate. Representative Blackburn and Republicans on this panel think that Planned Parenthood and Southwestern Women’s Options are trafficking in baby parts, to put it in a blunt way. And, you know, the researchers and others who are involved in this fetal tissue research say it is critical to the study of human disease.

KUNM: And then there’s also some Democrats on the panel. What are we hearing from them?

COLEMAN: U.S. Representative Schakowsky from Illinois has been very vocal in opposition to these subpoenas and she called it “a new low in the Republican attack on women’s healthcare.” Her statement said that Republicans want to create a database of names: patients, doctors, medical students, and others. I asked the committee about that - was there any indication that such a database is being created or would be created - and they said that they don’t have any proof that that’s the case. But they pointed out that in other congressional inquiries like this, on different subjects, when this type of information is provided to the committee, a lot of times it’s leaked out. Somehow it gets out into the public realm. So, they’re trying to use an abundance of caution about protecting the identities of the people involved in this.

KUNM: So, what’s next? Eventually we’ll hear some kind of report coming out of the special House panel, when might we hear the results of their investigation?

COLEMAN: They’ve subpoenaed, as I understand it, as many as 30 different organizations, maybe even more at this point. And they’ve gotten hundreds, and I’m sure at this point, thousands and thousands of documents. So, I don’t think this is something we are going to see a resolution to next week, or maybe even next month.

One thing we could see in the future, I’m not sure when, is that the panel does have power to compel people to come and testify before Congress. In that case, if they decide to do that, we could well see New Mexico researchers and doctors and others involved in this case here in Washington testifying under oath. And if that happens I’ll be here to cover it and let you know what they have to say.

KUNM: Thanks a lot, Michael Coleman for your time today.

COLEMAN: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.