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Editorial: UNM lab notes on fetal tissue are inappropriate

Respect for fetal tissue harvested from pregnant women during abortion procedures apparently was in short supply in the minds of some of those involved in research at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

How else can you explain unnamed faculty members asking for fetal brains for what a lab assistant casually calls “summer camp students.” The same lab assistant also jotted down “whoo hoo!!” when an Albuquerque abortion clinic provided a whole fetal pancreas for another project and drew a frowny face next to an entry that showed another fetal pancreas was not intact.

That’s what documents subpoenaed by the U.S. House Select Panel on Infant Lives show. The procurement notes and hundreds of pages of other documents were obtained from the Health Sciences Center and the Southwestern Women’s Options abortion clinic in Albuquerque as part of the panel’s investigation into the use of fetal tissue for medical research.

In a notation on May 24, 2012, a lab assistant wrote “Asked clinic for digoxin treated tissue 24-28 wks. for methylation study & because (redacted) wants whole, fixed brains to dissect w/summer camp students.” Note: Although it has no basis in law to do so, UNM is refusing to reveal the names of those involved, citing safety concerns

It’s interesting that the study appeared to be related to the abortion itself. Digoxin is a heart medication that is sometimes injected into amniotic fluid or a fetus to cause the fetus to die before an abortion is performed. A methylation study looks for gene activation in human tissue samples.

And for faculty members to dissect donated fetal brain tissue in front of not just UNM students, but also the children of faculty members, during what UNM officials are calling a “Neuroscience Summer Experience” – somehow trying to draw a distinction between that and the term “summer camp” – is inappropriate at best and barbaric at worst.

A Health Science Center spokesman said the use of the term “summer camp” was “an inartful shorthand that inaccurately described an educational neuroscience research program.”

While UNM says the university, the Office of Diversity’s Dream Makers or the independent Mind Research Network located on the UNM campus, did not “sponsor” the summer program, classes were held in various campus sites and apparently conducted by two faculty members. These summer programs were held in 2012 and 2014.

Apparently, having employees conduct these sessions in UNM facilities doesn’t constitute “sponsorship” – a university-level parsing of words.

The university has stonewalled multiple Inspection of Public Records Act requests from the anti-abortion New Mexico Alliance for Life for records regarding fetal tissue obtained from the clinic, saying it did not keep that kind of information. However, the procurement notes indicate that, indeed, such information is kept in great detail.

Having a legal abortion is a difficult enough decision for most women, but to have the tissue they agreed to donate, ostensibly to advance science, treated in this way is unacceptable. It’s one thing to have enthusiasm for one’s work, but the flippant tone of the notebook entries is just plain wrong on any level.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.