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UNM rejects request for burial of fetal tissue

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The chancellor of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center has declined a request by a New Mexico anti-abortion group that had sought a “proper burial” for fetal tissue samples stored at the school for research that has now been cancelled.

Tara and Bud Shaver, of Abortion Free New Mexico, asked Chancellor Dr. Paul Roth to transfer 72 “aborted baby remains” to an Albuquerque mortuary “so that they may receive a proper burial.”

After a top faculty researcher ran afoul of internal protocol governing the use of fetal tissue, Roth permanently halted her fetal tissue research in June. That left donated tissue samples in limbo because she was the sole fetal tissue researcher.

Roth in a letter last month told the Shaver group that he realizes their offer was made “out of a place of thoughtfulness,” but couldn’t agree to turn over the “tissue,” which was anonymously donated by women who sought abortion care at an “outside facility.”

The women “proactively” chose to donate the 72 fetal tissue samples for research purposes, he wrote.

“I am also mindful that they may hold a variety of personal, moral and/or religious beliefs,” Roth wrote. “They may not have wanted those samples to be turned over to anyone promoting a particular faith, political position or religious beliefs.”

Roth still hasn’t decided what to do with the tissue, his Aug. 30 letter stated. The tissue was donated by women who had abortions at an Albuquerque clinic, Southwestern Women’s Options.

In a press release this week, Abortion Free New Mexico said Roth’s decision “promotes a culture of death in New Mexico.”

“We are not talking about medical specimens or tissue, but human beings with inherent value, who deserve to be treated with dignity,” the press release stated.

UNM in June barred Pediatrics Professor Dr. Robin Ohls from acquiring, transferring or performing research with donated fetal tissue. Since Ohls was the sole fetal tissue researcher at UNM, the ban effectively ends fetal tissue research at the university for now.

Ohls, chief of UNM’s neonatology division, was found to have violated policies regulating the use of fetal tissue when she shipped samples to a Michigan research firm without submitting proper documentation about the research arrangement or seeking a prior internal review of the related research.

In March 2017, UNM released a statement touting its fetal research program.

“This work has transformed the lives of extremely premature babies, who are at risk for a host of lifelong deficits. The therapy developed by a UNMHSC pediatrician who is dedicated to saving these babies’ lives has dramatically improved their health outcomes. Children who otherwise would have endured blindness or mental incapacity are thriving.”

That statement was issued months before UNM became aware of Ohls’ work with the Michigan research firm, which was focused on infant eye diseases.

Ohls told the Journal in July she never intentionally failed to file the proper paperwork or seek prior approvals.

No laws were broken and fetal tissue wasn’t sold, a Health Science Center spokeswoman has said. Ohls still treats patients.

Meanwhile, UNM moved the fetal tissue samples from Ohls’ lab for storage in a central repository.

UNMHSC spokeswoman Alex Sanchez couldn’t immediately say whether the fetal tissue samples are still viable for research elsewhere.

Dr. Curtis Boyd, owner of Southwestern Women’s Options, submitted an affidavit in a pending court case stating that any fetal tissue from a pregnancy termination at his clinic either has been donated to UNM or frozen at the end of the business day that it was obtained.

Fetal tissue that is frozen is no longer viable for research and is disposed of on a weekly basis when it is picked up by a bio-waste company, his affidavit stated.

Across the country, a handful of states have considered fetal burial requirements and outright bans on fetal tissue research. Last week, a federal judge in Texas blocked a 2017 state law requiring the burial or cremation of aborted fetal tissue. The court found the measure created substantial and unconstitutional barriers to a woman’s right to choose.

The Texas law would have required hospitals, abortion clinics and other providers to arrange for the burial or cremation of fetal remains, regardless of a patient’s personal wishes or religious beliefs, and regardless of whether the remains were from an abortion or miscarriage.

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