Correction: The headline has been revised to reflect that UNMHSC, the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, has halted the program.
Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
For the past decade, the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center has used fetal tissue from abortions conducted at a controversial Albuquerque abortion clinic for research aimed at improving the fate of extremely premature infants.
Physicians at the clinic, Southwestern Women’s Options, which performs late-term abortions, have also trained UNM School of Medicine fellows and residents on abortion procedures, although it’s unclear whether any of the training involved controversial third trimester abortions.
Under new scrutiny about the relationship between clinic director Dr. Curtis Boyd and the publicly funded university, UNMHSC officials said last week that they will no longer send medical fellows or residents to Boyd’s clinic, which is located in Downtown Albuquerque.
“The School of Medicine does not currently have residents or fellows rotating at his clinic and has no plans to continue to send residents there,” said spokesman Billy Sparks.
“Given that learners will no longer be rotating at his clinic, the Health Sciences Center will review the need for his (Boyd’s) volunteer faculty status going forward,” Sparks added. The position is unpaid.
Boyd didn’t return a request for comment.
UNMH officials in an interview Tuesday said that they had not yet informed Boyd of their decision. They had no explanation for the change other than the desire for a more academic approach at an out-of-state institution.
They said the move wasn’t related to questions raised about the relationship from at least one state lawmaker, an anti-abortion advocacy group and, more recently, the Journal.
UNMH officials also said there was no plan to stop accepting fetal tissue from Boyd’s clinic – despite an internal policy that appears to call the practice into question. The policy does not prohibit the practice, they say, but conceded that its wording could be misunderstood by a “lay” person.
Boyd isn’t compensated for the tissue samples, which are provided after a patient at his clinic consents, they added.
The controversy over the scientific use of tissue from abortions made national headlines last summer with the release of a videotape in which it appeared that Planned Parenthood was making a profit by selling fetal tissue from abortions.
The secretly recorded tape, released by a California anti-abortion group, put Planned Parenthood officials on the defensive, but to date there has been no proof that the organization violated federal law by accepting such compensation.
In New Mexico, the focus isn’t on Planned Parenthood, but on Boyd’s clinic.
According to its website, the clinic performs third trimester abortions, beginning at 25 weeks, and after 28 weeks, on a case-by-case basis. Such late-term abortions are typically performed if maternal health issues or fetal abnormalities exist, the website states.
In a May 2015 letter to UNMH, Boyd stated that in abortions of less than 20 weeks, his doctors use “aspiration, dilation and evacuation.”
Abortions after 20 weeks involve “feticide” by injecting the fetus with the drug Digoxin, Boyd’s letter states.
Boyd is one of only four abortion providers in the country to perform late-term abortions. Both UNM’s Center For Reproductive Health and Planned Parenthood of New Mexico perform abortions, but only up to 18 weeks.
At the request of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, state Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and other legislators posed questions to top Health Sciences Center officials last July about the relationship with Boyd’s clinic and the use of “body parts” from women who have abortions there.
No monetary compensation goes to Boyd or his Southwestern Women’s Options for fetal tissue or for helping train fellows or residents.
But Montoya told the Journal that the argument could be made that the residents and fellows were helping the clinic augment its staffing for abortions.
“Initially, it had the appearance of being a transaction of sorts,” Montoya said last week. “Of staffing in return for the body parts. That’s the appearance, and I informed them, ‘that’s how it appears to me.’ ”
Health Sciences Center officials dispute that, saying the education of fellows or residents created added work for Boyd’s doctors and staff.
The most recent training agreement, signed last year with Boyd, allowed two people in a UNM School of Medicine family planning fellowship to spend two weeks at Boyd’s clinic to learn about “abortion care.”
An earlier agreement for the 2011-2012 school year permitted medical school residents to train at the clinic.
Experience with induced abortion, and complications of abortion, must be part of a residency education, according to a national requirement for residents in an obstetrics and gynecology graduate program. Residents with religious or moral objections can opt out.
Under the training agreements with UNM, physicians at Southwestern Women’s Options – described as “faculty” – supervised the residents/fellows on a day-to-day basis and evaluated their performance.
Aside from Boyd, three other physicians were to be responsible for their education and supervision.
Two of them came to work for Boyd in Albuquerque after the death of their colleague, Dr. George Tiller, who was killed in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist in Wichita, Kan. Tiller at the time was among the few physicians who performed late-term abortions. After his death, Boyd decided to continue Tiller’s work.
UNM’s training agreement with Boyd dated June 2, 2014, states, “The major goal of the rotation is to give additional volume of 2nd trimester abortions under your expert supervision.”
The agreement was signed by Dr. Eve Espey, director of the Fellowship in Family Planning for the UNM Ob/Gyn Department.
The letter didn’t address whether fellows and residents would also perform late-term abortions, and UNMH officials last week said they didn’t know whether any residents or fellows have done so.
Erin Armstrong, a reproductive rights attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico, said her organization represents Boyd’s clinic, which she said has been “under attack in the past by extremist anti-abortion groups.”
“We know the current attack on fetal tissue donation and the fellowship training are more examples of how these extremists are trying to do anything they can to prevent women from accessing safe and legal abortion here in New Mexico,” she said. “And so we are remaining vigilant in our efforts to represent the clinic and protect these valuable programs.”
UNMHSC officials told the Journal last week that they have been assured by Boyd that women who have abortions at his clinic give consent to having the fetal tissue used for research. They acknowledged that the university is not party to the consent agreements and doesn’t keep them on file.
Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor and vice chancellor for research at the health sciences center, told the Journal that Boyd’s clinic is the school’s only supplier of fetal tissue, which is used for research conducted by a consortium of 19 academic institutions.
“As part of that consortium and the research in that consortium, we have really conducted a number of trials that have shown ways that we can markedly reduce the mortality of premature babies, especially these extremely premature babies.”
The research has discovered ways to reduce the likelihood of blindness, cognitive defects and gastrointestinal complications often found in newborns between 24 and 30 weeks.
That’s why fetal tissue from second trimester abortions at Boyd’s clinic would be the most useful for research, since the medical issues under study involve trying to decrease morbidity and mortality at that same fetal age of development, from 20 to 24 weeks, say UNMH officials.
“It was clearly tissue that was needed to make these sort of scientific breakthroughs,” Larson told the Journal. UNMH officials said last week that they have no documents to show how much fetal tissue is sent from Boyd’s clinic to UNM researchers, nor how often.
Larson said he asked Boyd to write letters to the university explaining how such tissue will be furnished for medical research and that no identifying information for the tissue be provided. The first letter was dated in 2006 and a follow-up letter was dated in May of this year.
Such samples will be “available immediately following completion of the procedure and examination of the tissue,” the letters state.
Although UNMHSC has a human tissue research policy that, on its face, appears to prohibit such contributions from “outside entities,” Larson told the Journal last week that provision was “perhaps poorly worded” and doesn’t apply to Boyd or his clinic.
The policy bars the “purchase, donation or sale of human tissue to or from any outside entity” and was intended for “people who are skilled in doing research and not meant to be read by lay people on the outside,” Larson added.
Elisa Martinez, president of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, said “the fact that UNM has disbanded the late-term abortion resident program is a tacit acknowledgement of guilt in violating their own policies, procedures and blatant misuse of public trust and funds.”
She said her organization would continue its investigation into the fetal tissue issue and related matters.
Meanwhile, Montoya said he’s still concerned about the fetal tissue research and apparent lack of data about what is received from Boyd’s clinic.
“The real problem here is, there really is no oversight of any of the (abortion) clinics in the state,” he said.
UNM is “really out of step” with the wishes of most New Mexicans, he added.
“We know that the vast majority of New Mexicans believe we should not have a free-for-all when it comes to abortion,” he added.