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Dispute arises in fetal parts inquiry

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The University of New Mexico and a local abortion provider said Friday that they are cooperating with a federal investigation into the sale of fetal body parts, though a member of the U.S. House of Representatives claims otherwise.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., chairwoman of the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, announced Thursday that she planned to subpoena UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options for their noncompliance with the panel’s investigation.

But Billy Sparks, a spokesman for the branch of UNM that oversees the hospital and medical school, said UNM staff were in the process of gathering the reams of information requested by the panel. This includes a list of all UNM entities that received fetal tissue and all financial statements for the School of Medicine and the Health Sciences Center. The panel also requested personnel lists for anyone who would handle fetal tissue.

Sparks also said UNM was told it had until Feb. 16 to respond to the panel’s request. And he shared documents showing interactions between UNM’s attorneys and the panel that he says refute Blackburn’s claims.

“We are disappointed that the majority would issue a precipitous press release prior to the February 16 deadline stating that we are not cooperating and are unwilling to submit the documents requested,” he said.

The threat of subpoenas is the first indicator that the federal investigation had reached New Mexico.

“Without these subpoenas, the American people and the House itself would be left to speculate about what is going on in the fetal tissue industry. We cannot leave questions unanswered,” Blackburn said in her Thursday statement.

Jessica R. Hertz, an attorney for Southwestern Women’s Options, said Friday that the abortion provider also was working with the panel.

“We will continue to be responsive to the panel’s inquiries and will do so in a manner that protects individuals’ safety and privacy,” she said.

Southwestern Women’s Options trained UNM medical students in providing abortion procedures, but the medical school canceled that practice late last year. The late-term abortion provider also provides fetal tissue from the center’s abortion procedures to the UNM Health Sciences Center for medical research.

Other than a issuing a statement, Hertz did not respond to questions, including whether the clinic planned to withhold names of its employees.

Documents from UNM indicated staff was hesitant to release names of some employees. Sparks said UNM is still discussing with the panel whether the university will be required to release those names.

The Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives is made up of eight Republicans and six Democrats. The latter oppose Blackburn’s subpoena push, and they say they have repeatedly asked Blackburn to not force health care providers to disclose the names of their employees.

“We firmly believe that this is an abusive and unjustifiable use of the chair’s unilateral subpoena authority,” a letter from the Democratic members said.

Mike Reynard, the deputy chief of staff for Blackburn, declined to answer questions about other panel activities, such as whether it was investigating other agencies in the state or when the panel sent out its requests for information.

The panel also declined to provide the Journal with a copy of the letter sent to UNM. Reynard said he wouldn’t comment beyond anything provided in a four-paragraph news release sent out Thursday evening.

Protest ABQ, an anti-abortion group, issued a statement that it had submitted documentation compiled over five years of research to the panel Friday to review.

“This investigation by the U.S. House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives couldn’t be more timely as New Mexicans are consistently left with more questions than answers,” the group said in a statement.

The creation of the panel, and the added national scrutiny on abortion providers and how they dispose of fetal tissue, has been part of a national conversation since April 2015. That’s when a California anti-abortion group released a secretly recorded video in which it appears Planned Parenthood officials negotiate the sale of fetal parts.

To date, there has been no proof that the organization violated federal law by accepting such compensation. And earlier this month, a Texas grand jury issued indictments of the undercover videographers for tampering with a governmental record.