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Editorial: Health Sciences needs to clear up fetal transfer question

Correction: Headline on this editorial has been corrected.


There is no shortage of controversy swirling around the issues of late-term abortion, the University of New Mexico Health Science Center’s relationship with one of the nation’s few clinics that performs them and the use of aborted fetal tissue for research.

Here is another item for the list:

Documents obtained by the Journal last week revealed that Health Sciences had suspended its research involving fetal tissue – research done under the auspices of Dr. Robin Ohls, who also has been barred from her laboratory since late October after Health Sciences officials learned she had been transferring fetal tissue to an independent research facility in Michigan.

Previously, the university had said the tissue was carefully shared only within a circle of university research institutions.

This is against the backdrop of an investigation by a Republican-controlled congressional committee that ended its work last January with a referral to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas asking him to determine whether any state criminal laws had been broken in earlier collaborations between university researchers and Southwestern Women’s Options in Albuquerque.

Balderas found no criminal violations, and UNM and the clinic have both insisted there was no “sale” of fetal tissue, and that the law allowing recovery of the actual cost of obtaining it was followed carefully.

All that preceded the disclosure that Dr. Ohls, a prominent pediatrics physician, had been transferring fetal tissue to an independent private research lab in Michigan.

But according to an internal UNM memo obtained by the Journal, Ohls has been regularly acquiring fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options and transferring it to Zietchick Research Institute in Michigan since February 2017. The practice came to light when Ohls asked whether Zeitchick could reimburse the university for part of her lab assistant’s salary to compensate for the time spent preparing examples for transport. It is unclear if there was any other compensation by the private lab and Health Sciences officials are investigating whether Ohls violated procedures surrounding the transfer of fetal tissue.

Health Sciences officials have little to say other than to confirm the suspension of research and that their investigation is ongoing.

The clinic and its relationship with UNM have been the target of anti-abortion activists, who found a sympathetic ear in the now-disbanded Special Investigative Panel of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Various issues had been raised, including the relationship between UNM and the clinic, and the sufficiency of the consent forms signed by women about to undergo the procedure allowing the transfer of fetal tissue.

At one point – in practices since discontinued – UNM medical residents did stints at the clinic and the clinic’s director was an unpaid volunteer member of the UNM faculty.

It is an understatement to describe late-term abortions as controversial – which is why so few places offer them – and the importance of fetal tissue research from aborted fetuses has been a major part of the public policy defense for UNM’s relationship with the abortion clinic. The arguments around the practice itself are well known and range from those who say a woman has an absolute right to control her body to those who consider this procedure to be murder.

Why a noted researcher would take actions putting the fetal tissue research the university values so highly at risk without following procedures and getting approval – if, in fact, she did not – is a mystery.

But UNM did the right thing by putting the research on hold while it investigates. If it finds violations, it needs to act appropriately, including taking steps to ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent fetal transactions not specifically and carefully allowed.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.



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