On Wednesday morning, Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments in a case that could severely restrict a woman’s access to a safe abortion — an issue that brought hundreds of pro-choice protesters to Washington, D.C. But that wasn’t the only discussion about abortion rights taking place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Behind the closed doors of the Capitol, members of the House held the first congressional hearing on Planned Parenthood’s involvement with the sale of fetal tissue. This hearing, dubbed the “Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives” by the conservative representatives behind it, was a wide-ranging discussion of the morality of abortion that Democratic lawmakers protested was more like a witch hunt than an objective discussion.
Four of the six people called to testify at Wednesday’s hearing were openly anti-abortion, and the discussion often veered into territory that left lawmakers at a loss for words.
“In our society, have we reached a point where there is an Amazon.com for baby parts, including entire babies?” Rep. Diane Black (R) asked at one point. No one knew quite how to answer.
The hearing was scheduled after a anti-abortion group created a series of videos that claimed Planned Parenthood profited off selling baby tissue — a campaign that sparked investigations into the organization across the country. According to chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who led the recent congressional fight to defund Planned Parenthood, the purpose of the hearing was to discuss “ethical issues that surround procuring and selling baby body parts” — an illegal act that Planned Parenthood never participated in, according to each of the nearly 30 states that have investigated the health organization.
Although these videos have now been discredited due to their highly edited content, and two of the videographers involved have been indicted in Texas for tampering with government evidence and other crimes, GOP representatives were still eager to pursue the issue. They brought a handful of experts — the majority of which were openly anti-abortion — to talk about this unfounded crime.
Instead of investigating whether clinics are illegally selling fetal tissue, though, the hearing mostly focused on the ethics of simply donating fetal tissue from aborted fetuses for scientific research, an act that’s been legal since the 1970s.
“Last summer’s videos revealed that something very troubling is going on related to fetal tissue and research,” said Blackburn in her opening remarks. “But this hearing is about bioethics…not election election-year politics.”
However, the hearing was rooted in partisan political debate.
“This is not an objective hearing, this is a debate against a woman’s right to chose,” Rep. Suzan DelBene (D) interjected during the hearing’s first round of questions.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) called Blackburn’s personal investigation into the researchers and doctors who use fetal tissue a “witch hunt” eerily reminiscent of former Senator Joe McCarthy’s abusive investigative tactics in the 1950s.
“The unfortunate truth is that this partisan pursuit of the manufacture, false allegations of anti-abortion extremists is putting Americans in harm’s way,” said Schakowsky. “And it must stop.”
Gerard Donovan, the director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, was quick to compare research done on fetal tissue to the world’s most unethical studies, including Auschwitz physician Joeseph Mengele and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Using his own definition of “personhood,” he went on to side-step the focus of the meeting and share his thoughts on abortion.
“Because we know that the fetus is alive, and human, we must find some explanation for why it should not be treated with the same dignity that we accord all other human lives,” Donovan said, who went on to talk about fetal pain, an issue also unrelated to tissue procurement.
“We wouldn’t have kittens or puppies put to sleep without keeping them out of pain,” he said. “I don’t think we should do that for kids either.”
Those on the other side of the debate were upset about the political takeover of legal research tactics.
“I feel like I’m a time traveler to the Salem Witch Trials,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D). “Unfortunately, this time, those being burned at the stake are our scientists, who hold future medical breakthroughs in their hands. They are joined by brave women’s healthcare workers who are simply trying to care for their patients.”
R. Alta Charo, a professor at University of Wisconsin’s Law School and the School of Medicine & Public Health, addressed the elephant in the room, stressing that banning fetal tissue research has little to do with a woman’s choice to end a pregnancy.
“Federal review has repeatedly found that the option to donate tissue has no effect on whether a woman will choose to have an abortion,” Charo said.
She went on to note the Center for Disease Control’s recent request for fetal tissue donations to accelerate the study of Zika, the virus that’s linked to severe brain defects in thousands of newborns. It’s ironic, she added, that “the absence of this kind of research could lead to more abortions” by women who find out their fetus has been affected by the disease.
“If we cut off this research, we’re facing a global emergency,” she said.
Many of the anti-abortion testifiers encouraged the use of adult cells over fetal. But researchers have found that fetal cells are far superior to those of an adult when it comes to transplants and disease research because the cells are far more flexible and quicker to proliferate than adult cells, among other reasons. And they’re key to understanding future medical scenarios.
“Our ability to examine the earliest stages of human development are vital to our understanding and our ability to treat many diseases in the future including diseases of pregnancy, diseases of the placenta, and diseases of children and adults,” said Lawrence Goldstein, director of University of California, San Diego’s Stem Cell Program.
The hearing ultimately devolved into a moral debate over abortion rights, similar to the discussion taking place in front the Supreme Court at the same time.
Rep. DelBene summarized the day’s events with a simple, pointed question: “Do you think ideology should shape the rules about scientific research?”