WASHINGTON — A House panel investigating fetal tissue research Wednesday voted to begin contempt proceedings against a California company — an effort that Republicans contend is a rescue mission for the unborn and that Democrats call a witch hunt.
Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the chairman of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, has been pursuing StemExpress, which collects fetal tissue from abortion providers and sells it to medical researchers, for nearly a year.
Her mission is to determine whether StemExpress and similar businesses are buying or selling fetal tissue in violation of the 1993 law that regulated the practice. To find out, Blackburn has requested reams of material from the Placerville, Calif., company and its founder and chief executive, Catherine Dyer.
Dyer has turned over more than 1,700 pages worth, according to her lawyer, Frank Radoslovich. But Blackburn argues that the page count is less important than the content — and that the investigators still lack crucial documents.
“In order for us to find out if somebody’s making a profit, we have to have an accountant look at their accounting records,” said Blackburn’s spokesman, Mike Reynard. “We’ve hired a genius senior auditor to review the records.”
The genius may have to wait.
Radoslovich, a Sacramento lawyer who calls himself “a street fighter,” told STAT he’s ready to take on the committee. He denied that Dyer is in contempt of Congress, and said that after receiving a steady stream of death threats since her company came into the spotlight, she must protect her staff by preserving their anonymity.
“We have a real, legitimate interest in protecting the privacy of our employees,” Radoslovich said. “We have a panel of zealots that have already proven that they will disclose or mischaracterize documents, or just flat-out make up things and attribute it to us. We can’t be put in a position to further endanger employees.”
Blackburn is seeking documents including accounting records, bank statements, and personal information about employees, including laboratory technicians.
Radoslovich said abortion providers continue to face violence, and suggested any company that is connected to them is also vulnerable.
“These are real threats. Real people have been killed,” he said. “Our client is committed to give the panel what it may legitimately and reasonably need, but not documents that are clearly designed just to be disclosed to whoever consumes that information in an evil way.”
The panel’s hearings have broken down into bickering along party lines. Blackburn has repeatedly referred to procurement of human fetal tissue as the sale of “baby parts,” while Democrats have stressed the need for stem cells for medical study.
On Wednesday, the panel broken down along party lines again, with Republicans voting to begin contempt proceedings against StemExpress and Democrats — who walked out of the committee room in protest before a final vote — opposing the move.
Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the ranking Democrat on the committee, argued that the panel did not have the authority to initiate the contempt charge.
“This illegal meeting is a political sideshow with devastating consequences for anyone who cares about women’s health care or life-saving medical research,” she said.
The law governing the procurement of fetal tissue for medical research does permit abortion providers to donate fetal tissue, and for businesses to collect it, as long as no profit is made.
Both sides in the transaction are allowed to recoup “reasonable” costs for transportation, implementation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue, but exactly what “reasonable” means is not spelled out. Blackburn contends that StemExpress has a markup of 500 percent to 700 percent, which Dyer denies.
House Republicans launched the panel last October, after an anti-abortion activist circulated videos, now largely discredited, that allegedly showed Planned Parenthood employees talking about selling fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood denied doing so, and Dyer said her company actually loses money on each transaction.
StemExpress, its lawyer said, is no longer working with Planned Parenthood.
This story has been updated with news of the committee vote on Wednesday.