House of Representatives

Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), head of the House’s investigative panel on fetal tissue.

Gage Skidmore

Groups protest House demands for names of fetal tissue researchers

A special investigative panel in the U.S. House of Representatives this week intensified its probe into the use of fetal tissue in biomedical research with a dozen new subpoenas aimed at researchers and abortion providers. This second round of inquiries, two of them directed to individual faculty members at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, deepens concerns among some education groups and scientists that personal information revealed in the investigation could make researchers the target of extremist violence.

The House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, launched last October and led by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), grew out of Republican backlash over undercover videos released last summer by the Center for Medical Progress, an antiabortion group that accused the organization Planned Parenthood of illegally profiting from the sale of tissue from abortions. The panel sent out more than 30 information requests to universities, companies, and abortion clinics before issuing three formal subpoenas in February to the abortion provider Southwestern Women’s Options (SWO), the tissue procurement company StemExpress, and UNM, whose health sciences center includes labs that work with fetal tissue from abortions performed by SWO. The request included “the identity, by name, of persons who participated in each study” involving fetal tissue, as well as those who transferred tissue to the university.

At the panels’ first hearing in March, its Democratic members moved unsuccessfully to quash these subpoenas, citing safety concerns in the wake of a shooting that killed three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic last fall. Jerrold Nadler (D–NY) worried that the panel would be “complicit” in the murder of researchers if their names were revealed. UNM says it has so far provided the panel with roughly 3000 pages of documents, but refused to reveal the identities of faculty and students involved in the research.

That response didn’t satisfy Blackburn. “[S]ome of these organizations have so redacted documents—even after being subpoenaed—that it is impossible for us to get the complete picture of what is actually going on. Others have refused to produce documents required under previous subpoenas, and have threatened to withhold additional subpoenaed information,” she said in a 30 March statement.

The new subpoenas include requests for documents from the institutional review board BioMedical Research Institute of America, and from Ganogen, a former company recently converted into a privately funded research institute, which is working to grow organs from aborted fetuses in animals for transplant into humans.  The online publication STAT yesterday identified researcher Eugene Gu of Vanderbilt University in Nashville as the founder of Ganogen.  Gu noted he hadn’t yet received the subpoena and wasn’t sure what his response would be. But he sounded a note for defiance, telling STAT, “It feels like living in North Korea or something … we’re still continuing our research, and we’re not going away … despite any intimidation by the Republicans.”

Four other subpoenas were sent to individuals whose names the panel redacted in the released documents, but UNM has confirmed that two of them are faculty members. The subpoenas request details about exchange of tissue samples between UNM and SWO, and the names of personnel involved in these transactions. Another, apparently directed at a UNM-affiliated clinician, calls for documentation of patients referred to SWO or other abortion providers.

 “[W]e simply cannot comply safely with the demand that accompanies the subpoenas for documents that identify staff and students who worked in the laboratory where this research was conducted,” the university said in a statement given to ScienceInsider. “Such disclosure would expose our employees and students to serious risk of harm.”

Several research organizations came to the defense of the university in a letter to Blackburn released yesterday. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the Association of American Universities (AAU), and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) jointly urged the panel to put in place clear rules about how personally identifiable information would be used and safeguarded.

A spokesperson for Blackburn maintains that personal information will be handled carefully, but wouldn’t comment on who would have access to any names provided. “It is important to the Chairman to be responsible with the use of these names,” Mike Reynard, communications director for the investigative panel told ScienceInsider, “but it is impossible for the panel to complete our investigation without full knowledge and an understanding of the individuals involved in the transactions and practices.” 

The subpoenas give recipients until 11 April to provide the requested documents, and several request that they appear for depositions in April.