A congressional committee investigating fetal tissue research stated last Thursday that it will issue 17 subpoenas to research institutions — UCSD being one of them — in order to obtain the names of researchers, graduate students and others who are involved. The other subpoenas will be served to various medical facilities and labs around the country.
As per the committee’s requests, UCSD has already provided the requested documents but with many of the names redacted to preserve the anonymity of the researchers.
According to the New York Times, many universities feel that releasing the names of those involved in fetal tissue research would put them in danger, especially in light of Robert L. Dear Jr.’s violent attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic which resulted in three deaths.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who heads the committee, explained how the investigation is being approached in terms of business practices.
“We are going to review the business practices of these procurement organizations and do some investigating of how they have constructed a for-profit business model from selling baby body parts,” Blackburn said in an interview with the New York Times.
The Energy and Commerce Committee created the panel after the release of a video covertly recorded by the Center for Medical Progress, a nonprofit group of citizen journalists dedicated to reporting on medical ethics and advances. The video shows Planned Parenthood Senior Director of Medical Services Deborah Nucatola in a lunch meeting with two people posing as potential fetus tissue buyers.
According to a press release from October 2015, the House of Representatives voted to create the panel in response to the controversial material presented in the video. Blackburn emphasized the importance of opening up the dialogue about the morality and legality of fetal tissue research.
“This is about getting answers to questions about how we treat and protect life in this country,” said Blackburn in the press release. “The allegations raised in these disturbing and abhorrent videos have led us to ask: What have we come to in this country? This select panel will allow us to have this conversation and help us get the facts about how infant lives are being treated.”
Larry Goldstein, a prominent neuroscientist at UCSD who is heavily involved with research that uses fetal tissue, has testified before Congress on the importance of fetal tissue research. In his testimony, he emphasized the scientific importance by describing the advances made in treatments for spinal cord injury, kidney generation and Alzheimer’s disease that could not have been discovered without the use of fetal tissue during research.
Founding Director of the UCSD Research Ethics Program Michael Kalichman explained the considerations that go into providing fetal tissue for research, particularly the circumstances of the woman’s abortion.
“If an abortion occurs, then is it ethically better to discard the fetus or to make use of it for the purpose of medical research?” Kalichman asked the UCSD Guardian. “Most people would probably favor the latter, but only under certain circumstances. In particular, no one would want a woman to choose to get pregnant for the purpose of having an abortion to contribute the fetus to research, and no one would want to have a woman feel coerced or pressured into having an abortion for the purpose of donating her fetus to research. The good news is that the laws and standard practice are designed to avoid these scenarios.”
Goldstein explained that the controversy surrounding the usage of fetal tissue might be better understood if framed in terms of being resourceful and limiting waste.
“I think the core message is that the research that is being done is being done with tissue that would have been discarded anyway,” Goldstein told the Guardian. “ And so there’s no real change with the disposition with the tissue; it’s a question of will it be thrown away or will it be donated to research, and if it’s donated to research we believe we can do useful things with it.”