A Congressional committee spent Wednesday morning screaming and yelling with former federal prosecutors, and each other, about whether abortion clinics and a small private company called StemExpress have illegally profited off fetal tissues.
The “Select Panel to Investigate Handling of Infant Lives” hearing marked a turn in Congressional investigations of secretly recorded and edited videos released by anti-abortion activists last year. Now, instead of abortion procedures, lawmakers are focused on fetal tissue sales.
The videos, produced by the Center for Medical Progress’ anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, now under indictment in Texas, inflamed abortion politics by featuring frank clinic doctor discussions of surgical procedures for harvesting fetal brain, liver, and other tissues.
These tissues are important for a wide variety of scientific research, and a 1993 federal law allows researchers to make “reasonable” payments for them. But abortion opponents say that the payments StemExpress made were too high, thus breaking the law.
“There is a market for baby body parts and this is absolutely repulsive,” Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania said at the hearing. He pointed to a screen shot of a website for tissue sales presented at the hearing.
Democrats on the investigative committee opened the hearing by disputing the slides prepared by the majority Republican staff, which sought to show profit as a motive in fetal tissue sales and that clinics incurred zero costs in collecting these tissues. Republicans such as committee chair Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee called them evidence of crimes, and invited a battery of former prosecutor to testify with similar opinions.
On the other side, Democrats such as Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado called the videos concocted, and invited their own slew of attorney witnesses to call them into question. They also cited a letter from StemExpress calling “the authenticity and validity” of the slides into question.
“If illegal fetal tissue sales are going on, then we need to get to the bottom of it,” DeGette said. “But we can’t have a witch-hunt based on screenshots and things created by staffers.”
StemExpress is having a rough time. On Tuesday, a Washington State man pleaded guilty to making death threats against StemExpress employees. A letter from the firm seen by BuzzFeed News claimed that it had offered a witness to the committee to discuss its legal fetal tissue sales, but the witness was not called. In February, Blackburn subpoenaed the firm for its sales numbers and testimony from employees, as well as a New Mexico university that had bought tissues from the company.
Overall, the half-dozen attorneys and former prosecutors at the witness panel divided by political party on whether crimes were committed by StemExpress. Former Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben called the video evidence so tainted by “deception” that it made the investigation dubious, for example, while former U.S. Attorney Michael Norton said a forensic accounting investigation of the firm is clearly needed.
So far, 12 states have investigated the charges made in the videos and declined to pursue them. Daleiden is now facing criminal charges in Texas over record tampering and attempted illegal organ purchases. Daleiden was not called to testify at the hearing.
In September, Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards defended her organization’s finances before yet another Congressional committee. Planned Parenthood said one clinic had previously charged about $60 for a fetal tissue sample, to recover costs. The women’s health organization has since said it will not charge anything for fetal tissue donations, even though it will cost money.
Two months after Richardson’s testimony, Robert Lewis Dear Jr. killed three people at a Colorado abortion clinic, reportedly telling arresting police officers “no more baby parts,” after the shooting. DeGette and other critics of the hearing mentioned the shooting in calling for caution by the Congressional investigation, which is expected to call several more hearings throughout this election year.