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U.S. House panel asks Balderas to investigate UNM on fetal tissue research

Marsha Blackburn The Republican chairman of a congressional panel examining the fetal tissue research industry has asked New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate whether the University of New Mexico and an Albuquerque abortion provider broke a state law when they transferred aborted fetuses.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the U.S. House Select Panel on Infant Lives, said Thursday that UNM Health Sciences Center and Southwestern Women’s Options appear to be in violation of a New Mexico law called The Jonathan Spradling Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, or Spradling Act. A spokesman for UNMHSC disputed Blackburn’s claim.

Southwestern Women’s Options provides UNM with tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research. The Albuquerque clinic and UNMHSC officials contend the fetal tissue transfer is legal and integral to the study of human diseases.

Lawyers working for Blackburn on the Select Panel interpret the 2007 Spradling Act, which establishes state law on the donation of body parts such as kidneys for medical purposes, as allowing for the donation or transfer of stillbirth fetuses and fetuses resulting from miscarriages. But they cite a clause that says “not including a fetus that is the subject of an induced abortion” as prohibiting the transfer of remains in such cases.

“Documentation obtained by the panel in the course of our investigation reflects the transfer of fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options and the University of New Mexico for research purposes is a systematic violation of New Mexico’s Spradling Act,” Blackburn said in a statement. “These violations occurred as UNM personnel procured fetal tissue from patients at Southwestern Women’s Options for use by UNM entities for research.”

But UNMHSC spokesman Billy Sparks said the very section of the law the Select Panel cites actually provides for the fetal tissue transfer. Sparks said UNM was “profoundly disappointed” by Blackburn’s assertion.

“We categorically deny the Chair’s assertions in every respect,” Sparks said. “The University of New Mexico and its medical providers are committed to complying with all federal and state laws, rules and regulations. This includes the New Mexico Jonathan Spradling Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. This act only applies to ‘decedents.’ The act specifically excludes fetuses from induced abortions from the definition of ‘decedents’.

“In other words, contrary to Chairman Blackburn’s assertions, this act does not apply to fetuses from pregnancies that may have been terminated at Southwestern Women’s Options,” Sparks added. “Additionally, UNM has never paid for this tissue—it has been provided free to the University of New Mexico for medical research.”

The section of the New Mexico law that both Sparks and Blackburn are citing is found in the “definitions” part of the law.

It says: “Decedent means a deceased individual whose body or part is or may be the source of an anatomical gift. ‘Decedent’ includes a stillborn infant and, subject to restrictions imposed by law other than the Jonathan Spradling Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, a fetus but not including a fetus that is the subject of an induced abortion.”

Balderas spokesman James Hallinan said the attorney general has received the letter but declined to comment in detail.

“We can confirm the Office of the Attorney General has received a public referral and this matter is under review,” Hallinan said. “All complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General are fully reviewed and appropriate action is taken.”

The Select Panel is locked in a months-long legal battle with UNMHSC and the Albuquerque abortion clinic stemming from the fetal tissue donations. The panel has subpoenaed hundreds of pages of records and documents from both. But UNMHSC and Southwestern Women’s Options have refused to provide names of doctors, researchers and others requested by the committee, citing concerns for those individuals’ safety.Rep. Jane Schakowsky, the top Democrat on the Select Panel, has characterized the panel’s inquiry as a partisan witch hunt and asked that it be disbanded.

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.

The New Mexico state law referenced by Blackburn on Thursday is named for Jonathan Spradling, who died in 2001 at age 23 during a single-car crash in Los Lunas. The statute in his honor was designed to address organ shortages by authorizing additional ways to donate organs, eyes, and tissue for medical and research purposes.

The legal battle between UNMHSC and Blackburn’s panel stems from last summer’s controversy over secretly-filmed videos that appeared to show Planned Parenthood doctors haggling for fees in exchange for fetal tissue from abortions. A Texas grand jury later indicted exonerated Planned Parenthood and indicted two of the videographers on charges of tampering with a governmental record, a second-degree felony with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, is not on the panel. But he told the Journal Thursday he has tried to mediate the dispute between UNMHSC and the Select Panel, and encouraged the health center’s officials to cooperate more readily with the congressional inquiry.

“From my perspective, we want the research for kids’ health – everyone wants their kids to be healthy – but we also feel like the research ought to be falling within the guidelines,” Pearce said. “What I don’t want is a black eye for our state or the university.”

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