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NM remains at center of fetal tissue debate

New Mexico remains at the center of a national battle over the use of fetal tissue for medical research, and a hearing in the U.S. House Wednesday could trigger more debate over the role of abortion providers, researchers and anti-abortion activists in the state.

The U.S. House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives meets Wednesday morning for a hearing titled “The Pricing of Fetal Tissue.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the panel, says the hearing will examine whether abortion clinics and “middleman tissue procurement businesses” were profiting from the sale of fetal tissue.

“When questions are being raised about the possibility that a federal statute has been violated, Congress has a duty to the taxpayers to find the facts and get to the bottom of what is actually going on,” Blackburn said.

Under federal law, abortion providers can’t sell fetal tissue, but they can transfer it for purposes of medical research. Abortion providers are permitted to recover the cost of processing and shipping the tissue, although those costs are not specified or capped in law.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the panel contend that Blackburn and the Republicans who control the committee are unfairly and improperly targeting the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and Southwestern Women’s Options, an Albuquerque abortion provider. The panel made national headlines in February when it singled out the New Mexico organizations with subpoenas requesting documents, including identifying information of doctors, researchers and students.

“We are not aware of any legitimate basis for this panel to target these providers, and you have refused to provide any,” wrote Rep. Jan Schakowsky in a letter to Blackburn this month. “Abortion is legal in this country.  The fact that some providers perform this service is not a legitimate reason to use the power of the Congress to harass, intimidate, or target them.”

Protest ABQ was among the anti-abortion groups and supporters who attended a rally outside the Planned Parenthood offices in Albuquerque last August. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Protest ABQ was among the anti-abortion groups and supporters who attended a rally outside the Planned Parenthood offices in Albuquerque last August. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Democrats’ letter also raises questions about the role of Protest ABQ, an anti-abortion group in New Mexico. The letter contends the group, led by Tara and Bud Shaver, “advertises on their website that it ‘submitted documentation, compiled over 5 years of research, to the panel’,” but that Republicans who control congressional panel had not shared it with Democrats.

“This information has not been shared with Democratic members, in violation of House and Committee rules, and despite our repeated requests that you share all information being received or collected in the course of this investigation,” said the letter signed by Schakowsky and other Democrats on the panel.

Tara Shaver told the Journal in an email that Protest ABQ has followed all rules and procedures for providing data to the congressional panel.

“We submitted documentation in line with the panel’s scope of interest, using the online form, so it is out of our control how the information is disseminated to panel members,” she said.

Elisa Martinez, executive director of the New Mexico Alliance for Life, issued a statement Tuesday calling UNM officials “audacious” for redacting names and other identifying information from subpoenaed documentation it submitted to the panel.

“It’s shameful that top UNM officials have been hiding the truth from the public regarding their experimentation using aborted infant’s eyes, brains, lungs, hearts and other parts,” said NMAFL executive director Elisa Martinez.  “These same state employees have the audacity to defy the congressional committee’s requests for names of individuals who may be complicit with violations of the law.”

UNMHSC and Southwestern Women’s Health officials have said they withheld the information out of concerns for the safety of those named.

The National Abortion Federation, which supports abortion rights, released a report this month documenting an dramatic increase in violence and threats against abortion providers and related employees in 2015.

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