UNM sued to release fetal tissue records

WASHINGTON – The lawyer for a New Mexico anti-abortion group has filed suit against the University of New Mexico Health Services Center in state District Court alleging it broke state law by withholding records related to the study of aborted fetuses.

The lawsuit by Michael J. Seibel, who represents the New Mexico Alliance for Life, contends UNM Health Sciences Center violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act by failing to release documents he requested from a 2015 study “that used extracted eyeballs from babies aborted up to 24 weeks gestation,” according to a statement from the group.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday a U.S. House investigative panel formally issued subpoenas to UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options in Albuquerque in connection with the harvesting and transfer of fetal parts for medical research. Both organizations have said they plan to cooperate with House investigators. Scientists and researchers who analyze and study fetal tissue contend that the science is ethical and helps find cures for diseases.

In his lawsuit, Seibel said he requested documents related to the university’s fetal research program to determine whether it violated state or federal laws, as well as the health center’s internal policies. The lawsuit said his request was designed partly to determine the “scientific merit” of the fetal research. It also aims to determine whether women were adequately informed of the research and that their health was protected.

Federal law requires the records to be retained for at least three years after the research is completed, Seibel said.

The lawsuit claims that UNM’s response to Seibel’s request was that it “did not identify any records specifically responsive” and that it would provide them if such records were located. Seibel’s lawsuit claims the response is “patently absurd.”

The suit seeks the release of all documents Seibel initially requested, up to $100 in damages per day allowed under state law from Jan. 27 until the records are provided, costs and attorney’s fees.

“It’s shameful that our flagship university is not holding itself to a higher standard in these matters of public trust and accountability,” Elisa Martinez, executive director of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, said in a statement.

Billy Sparks, spokesman for UNM Health Services Center, declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuit Tuesday because, he said, the university had not yet been served with it.

“We did receive several IPRA requests from this group over the last six months,” Sparks said. “It is always our commitment to respond completely and in a timely manner to all IPRA requests received.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., the top Democrat on the Republican-controlled House panel that subpoenaed UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options, called the subpoenas “a new low in the Republicans’ attack on women’s health care.”

“These subpoenas show that Republicans are out to create a database of names of patients, doctors, medical students, and researchers involved in either abortion or fetal tissue research, without any legitimate reason for doing so,” she said. “A database like that – with no rules to protect it from public disclosure — poses a grave risk to individual privacy and safety.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, said Tuesday that the subpoenas are “needed to get the facts about the medical practices of abortion service providers and the business practices of the procurement organizations who sell baby body parts” and that some organizations have not complied with requests for information.

“If forced to do so, we will issue subpoenas to any organization that refuses to fully cooperate with our investigation.” she said.

Sparks said UNM complied with the original document request and is evaluating the subpoena.

“UNM delivered over approximately 300 responsive documents totaling approximately three thousands pages to keep our prior agreement with the panel,” Sparks said. “We received a subpoena today (Tuesday) from the panel that we are evaluating. Our initial review indicates that approximately one-third of the subpoena is entirely new requests, and other requests are changed and added to. We will evaluate this and respond accordingly.”

An attorney for Southwestern Women’s Options, a clinic that provides late-term abortions, said Monday that it delivered documents to the U.S. House panel on Friday.

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