A group of 25 New Mexico Republican lawmakers is calling on the University of New Mexico to halt research involving fetal body parts that have come from abortions.
The group also requested in a letter to the board of regents that UNM suspend the transfer of fetal body parts to or from the university until administrators can prove they’re not violating the law that bans profiting from the sale of such material.
The lawmakers also expressed concern that UNM may have improperly entered an agreement with Southwestern Women’s Options, one of a few clinics nationwide that provide late-term abortions. At one point, UNM medical students were doing rotations at that clinic, and the clinic’s director, Dr. Curtis Boyd, was a volunteer faculty member.
“I hope that we can work together to restore proper oversight,” the letter read. “No one wants to see the reputation of our flagship university unnecessarily damaged over the actions of a few unaccountable faculty members.”
UNM Health Sciences Center officials didn’t say whether they would comply with the requests but insisted the university had not violated any laws.
“UNM HSC categorically denies ever having bought or sold fetal tissue. Nor has it made any reimbursement for the tissue it has received from women who consented to donate it for research purposes,” the center said in a statement provided to the Journal by Michael Haederle, whose title is strategic support manager.
Rob Doughty, president of the board of the regents, said regents received the letter Monday but have not discussed it.
“Such a discussion by the board would have to take place in compliance with the Open Meetings Act,” Doughty said.
The letter from New Mexico lawmakers is connected to a monthslong investigation by a U.S. House of Representatives select investigative panel into UNM’s handling of fetal tissue and body parts from aborted fetuses.
Some researchers have said the tissue from the second trimester is particularly valuable for some research that seeks to address medical issues of fetuses in the same age of development.
The 25 Republican state representatives and senators who signed the letter also asked for a meeting with the regents before Nov. 30.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said he sent the letter to regents because he and other lawmakers have had difficulty getting answers from Health Sciences Chancellor Dr. Paul Roth. Health Sciences includes the University of New Mexico Hospital and researchers who use fetal tissue for medical research.
“I am asking the regents to look into it because, quite frankly, Dr. Roth and his staff have been a little less than forthcoming,” Montoya told the Journal on Tuesday.
Montoya said he started asking UNM questions about how it handles its fetal research in the summer of 2015 at the behest of constituents who wanted to know more about UNM’s connection to Southwestern Women’s Options and the clinic’s director.
The U.S. House select panel, Montoya said, later asked him about the questions he asked and the information he received.
“So I provided it to them,” he said.
Montoya said he has not received a response from his most recent letter to UNM.
In its statement, Health Sciences said that fetal tissue research has helped to improve the lives of premature babies, and that the university cooperated with the House panel investigation.
“We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that we have conducted our research, educational and clinical activities ethically, lawfully and transparently,” the statement said.
Under federal law, abortion providers are prohibited from selling fetal tissue, but they can donate it for medical research. Abortion providers can recover the cost of processing and transferring the tissue, though those costs are not specified or capped in law.
The Journal also obtained a copy of a Nov. 18 letter from the U.S. House panel to UNM that asked the university to set up an interview with the person who oversaw fetal tissue transfers between Southwestern Women’s Options and UNM. That same letter also asked for the financial information for tissue transfers between UNM and other parties.
It also sought information about the number of second- and third-trimester abortions from 2011 to the present at UNM facilities. It’s not clear whether that includes Boyd’s clinic.
Earlier this year, the congressional panel asked the office of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to investigate if UNM had violated a New Mexico law titled the Jonathan Spradling Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, a rule that governs the transfer of body parts.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in a statement in June that UNM violated state law in receiving fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options to use for research.
UNM Health Sciences spokesman Billy Sparks earlier this year denied UNM had done anything wrong in receiving tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options. He also said the Spradling Act doesn’t apply to aborted fetuses.
UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options have cooperated with most of the House panel’s requests, though they have refused to provide names of doctors, researchers and others, saying they’re concerned that releasing the individuals’ names could endanger their safety.