WASHINGTON – The Republican chairwoman of a congressional panel examining the fetal tissue research industry has asked New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate whether the transfer of aborted fetuses to the University of New Mexico from an Albuquerque abortion clinic violates state law.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is chairwoman of 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 Health Sciences spokesman disputed Blackburn’s position.
Southwestern Women’s Options – one of the nation’s few providers of both early and late-term abortions – 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 on Infant Lives 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. They cite a clause that says “not including a fetus that is the subject of an induced abortion” as prohibiting the transfer of human 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 section of the law the 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 said. “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.”
The panel’s lawyers told the Journal it is unclear how a violation of the New Mexico state law is classified, but said similar laws in other states define misdemeanors.
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 panel is locked in a monthslong legal battle with UNM’s Health Sciences Center and the Albuquerque abortion clinic stemming from the fetal tissue donations. The panel has subpoenaed hundreds of pages of records and documents from both.
UNMHSC and Southwestern Women’s Options have turned over some of the documents but have redacted names of doctors, researchers and others, citing concerns for their safety. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the top Democrat on the 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 was designed to address organ shortages by authorizing additional ways to donate organs, eyes and tissue for medical and research purposes.
Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, is not on the panel. But he told the Journal on Thursday that he has tried to mediate the dispute and encouraged Health Sciences Center 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.”