Upton panel to investigate Planned Parenthood practices

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Four senior Republicans on the U.S. House panel on Energy & Commerce, including Chairman Fred Upton of St. Joseph, say they will investigate an undercover video that raises questions about how Planned Parenthood handles the harvesting of fetal tissue and related activities.

An anti-abortion group released Tuesday a heavily edited video that it says proves that Planned Parenthood is selling the organs of aborted fetuses for profit – which is illegal.

“This video is abhorrent and rips at the heart,” Upton said in a statement with Vice Chair Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, and others, pledging to “get to the bottom of this appalling situation.” No hearings had been scheduled as of Thursday.

Planned Parenthood says the allegations are false, and that its participation in tissue and organ donation programs are done “with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards,” Eric Ferrero, the organization’s vice president of communications, said in a statement.

“These outrageous claims are flat-out untrue, but that doesn't matter to politicians with a longstanding political agenda to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood,” Ferrero said in a later statement.

“Women and families who make the decision to donate fetal tissue for lifesaving scientific research should be honored, not attacked and demeaned.”

House Speaker John Boehner has asked President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to denounce and stop the practices.

“I want the committees to do their investigation. I want them to do their hearings. And once they have, then we’ll decide what’s the proper course of action,” Boehner told reporters Thursday.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would also begin an inquiry. In a letter to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, he requested records regarding the provision of fetal tissue, including presentations, notes and policies, as well as contracts that Planned Parenthood clinics have with companies that procure fetal organs.

Grassley noted that $1.3 billion, or roughly 40 percent, of Planned Parenthood’s revenue in 2014 came from federal funding, which may not be spent on abortions.

Grassley also wrote to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, noting that the video discusses the intent of the partial-birth abortion ban and asking Lynch what her agency does to ensure compliance with the law.

From the Michigan delegation, Republican Reps. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls and Mike Bishop of Rochester applauded the congressional efforts to investigate Planned Parenthood.

“For any person to engage in such egregious acts, let alone speak of it so callously, is beyond disturbing and reflects upon their entire organization,” Bishop said in a statement.

House Judiciary panel Ranking Democratic member John Conyers of Detroit and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, denounced the video and resulting probes “as an opportunity to attack one of the nation’s leading providers of high-quality health care for women.”

“The video does not demonstrate that Planned Parenthood is ‘selling’ fetal tissue. In fact, many portions of the full video — edited out of the nine-minute version that House Republicans have circulated — directly contradict the allegation that Planned Parenthood has violated federal law.”

Selling fetal or any body parts would violate federal law. Planned Parenthood has emphasized that it makes no profit.

“There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood,” Ferrero said, adding that actual costs such as transport are reimbursed, “which is standard across the medical field.”

In a longer version of the video, Planned Parenthood’s director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, estimates that Planned Parenthood clinics might charge $30 to $100 for a specimen to recover the costs of the procedure and shipping, and depending on the facility and “what’s involved.”

The group behind the video is the Center for Medical Progress based in Irvine, California. Officials there say the video was shot last year at a restaurant in California, and that those questioning Nucatola are paid actors.

The center says Planned Parenthood is lying about obtaining consent from patients and about not making a profit on the tissue procedures.

In research, fetal tissues are mainly used to better understand fetal development, biology and disease, such as when diseases that affect babies begin to occur and how fetal cells communicate, said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.

“They are not a huge part of biomedical research,” Caplan said.

Fees such as those charged by Planned Parenthood for fetal specimens are not illegal, he said. But Nucatola in the video does talk about methods for extracting fetal materials in ways that would preserve certain parts of the fetus – which is “a big ethical problem,” Caplan said.

“You just want to do the abortion in a safe manner and have the woman’s health as your central focus,” Caplan said.

“You don’t want to change the timing or how you do it. Then you’re sort of making tissue procurement part of the abortion process – you don’t want to do that. You want to keep that separate.”


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