WASHINGTON — Here’s how a congressional committee created to investigate fetal tissue research is spending its time: They’re bickering back and forth about whether they’re breaking new ground, or just recycling material from the Planned Parenthood “sting” videos.
That’s what dominated a Wednesday hearing of the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, the committee the House launched in October to find out how fetal tissue is obtained for medical research and what role abortion clinics play — an investigation that started with the controversy over videos, now largely discredited, that allegedly showed Planned Parenthood employees talking about selling fetal tissue.
On Wednesday, House Republicans said they had broken new ground in their investigation of the alleged illegal sale of fetal tissue, presenting evidence against a business that they said serves as a middleman between health clinics and researchers.
Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the chairwoman of the committee, introduced documents that she said show the company, StemExpress of California, offered to pay clinics for aborted fetal tissue — and “baby body parts” — contrary to federal law, which bars the sale of fetal tissue for profit.
The Democrats on the committee said the documents were misleading, and sought to have them omitted from the record, a motion the GOP denied.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado and ranking Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, said much of the material could be traced back to antiabortion activist David Daleiden, who released a video in July that he contends is proof that Planned Parenthood was attempting to sell fetal tissue.
Daleiden has since been indicted on charges of tampering with a government record, and with the misdemeanor charge of the purchase or sale of human organs —the same charge he had leveled at Planned Parenthood employees. None of the state or congressional inquiries has found that Planned Parenthood broke the law.
GOP members of the panel defended their material.
“They have all been obtained through our regular investigatory work,” said Blackburn. “We have had things that have come from whistleblowers, subpoenaed employees, and also Internet search engines,” she said. “This is the way these documents have come to us.”
The video has given new momentum to the antiabortion movement and its allies in Congress, who established this panel to examine what it calls the illegal sale of “baby parts.” So far, the committee has a budget of $300,000, with more expected as the investigation continues.
A 1993 law permits “reasonable payments for transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal issue,” but exactly what constitutes reasonable is not specified.
“No one should profit from the sale of baby body parts,” Blackburn said. “No one.”
The documents she introduced included screenshots from a biomedical research company called StemExpress, which the GOP contends proves that the company was offering to buy fetal tissue to enable the selling company to make a profit.
In particular, they pointed to a screenshot from one web page that said, “Your clinic can advance biomedical research,” adding that doing so is “financially profitable.”
However, the Democrats provided a statement from the company denying that it makes a profit on fetal tissue, noting that “fetal tissue and cord blood are both provided at a loss.”
In addition, a close reading of the screenshot shows that the company notes that it is referring to more than fetal tissue. The page says StemExpress “provides human tissue products ranging from fetal to adult tissues and healthy to disease samples to many of the leading research institutions in the world.” StemExpress also said it sought cell-free fetal DNA, which circulates in maternal blood throughout pregnancy.
In a letter from the company’s lawyer, Amandeep S. Sidhu, of McDermott Will & Emery, the company raised questions about their validity.
“Nearly all of these the documents appear to be versions of StemExpress documents that were stolen by David Daleiden,” Sidhu wrote. “StemExpress has never been asked to verify the authenticity of any of these documents or respond to any questions that the Select Panel might have regarding these materials.”
A spokesman for Blackburn said the committee had requested numerous documents that StemExpress would not provide.
The lawyer also said that fetal tissue accounted for less than 1 percent of the company’s revenue in 2014, before losses.
“StemExpress does not provide fetal tissue to its customers to make money,” Sidhu wrote. “Rather, it is offered to support the needs of the world’s best researchers in their efforts to treat and cure diseases.”
Sidhu did not address whether any of the clinics that sold tissue made a profit, however.
Another exhibit shows a purchase order, dated November 14, 2014, for “human fetal brains” for $3,632.25. The buyer and seller’s names are redacted, however.
Blackburn said the panel would submit a report on the sale of fetal tissue to Congress by the end of the year.