Monday’s vote follows several weeks of controversy over Planned Parenthood’s facilitation of fetal tissue donation, which abortion opponents have characterized as “selling aborted baby parts.” GOP politicians have a long history of targeting the national women’s health organization, and have previously voted to defund it. But the specific focus on this area of scientific research is new.
In fact, just a few years ago, the practice of donating fetal tissue for research purposes enjoyed broad bipartisan support — including from some of the Republicans who are currently calling to crack down on Planned Parenthood.
The current controversy is being stoked by the right-wing group Center for Medical Progress, which has released several secretly recorded videos depicting Planned Parenthood employees speaking frankly about how to perform abortions in a way that allows fetal tissue to be collected and donated to medical research. Some of the inflammatory videos also show images of aborted fetus parts in petri dishes.
In response, Republicans have moved quickly to strongly condemn Planned Parenthood. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the videos “absolutely shock the conscience,” while House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said he can’t even talk about the controversy because the images make him want to throw up. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), the lead sponsor of the legislation seeking to defund the group, said the videos are “hard for anyone to defend,” adding that “Planned Parenthood is harvesting the body parts of unborn babies.”
Like stem cell research, ethical questions surrounding fetal tissue donation can trigger bigger debates over abortion. However, the issue has not always inspired such heated rhetoric from GOP lawmakers.
In 1988, during the Reagan administration, a panel of experts from the National Institutes of Health overwhelmingly voted in favor of allowing scientists to study biological material obtained from legal abortions. By a 19 to 0 vote, the group concluded that the practice should be considered morally acceptable because aborted fetal tissue is analogous to cadaver tissue, which is often used in scientific research.
And in 1993, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle voted to legalize fetal tissue research, even in cases when the samples were obtained from legal abortion procedures, when they approved the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act.
Spurred by pressure from groups looking for cures for degenerative diseases, that legislation lifted a previous ban on using fetal tissue in scientific research put in place during the Reagan administration. McConnell voted in favor — along with several other staunchly pro-life Republican lawmakers, like John McCain, Orrin Hatch, Fred Upton, and Lamar Smith.
In addition to the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, the Senate had several other opportunities to vote on the issue of fetal tissue donation during the 1990s. Each time, a bipartisan majority indicated support for the practice. In 1992, for instance, most Republicans — including McConnell — voted against a proposal to limit fetal tissue research to samples procured from miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. In 1997, the Senate voted down an amendment to the Udall Parkinson’s Research Act that would have prohibited funding for research on aborted fetal tissue.
Although some Democratic lawmakers have started to point out the apparent hypocrisy at play here, most of the politicians speaking out against Planned Parenthood have not addressed the 1993 vote on the NIH reauthorization bill.
However, a spokesperson for McConnell told the Huffington Post last week that the issue is not about fetal tissue research. Instead, the spokesperson said, the senator is concerned that Planned Parenthood may be violating laws that prohibit the trafficking of human body parts.
Regardless of the specific allegations against the women’s health organization, the political campaign against Planned Parenthood could have big consequences. Federal funding for family planning services has been declining for years, leaving clinics across the country struggling to meet the demand from low-income patients. And while Congress likely won’t have the votes to officially strip funding from Planned Parenthood, the national conversation may reinvigorate efforts to target family planning networks on the state level.