The federal investigation into the unfounded claim that Planned Parenthood profits off of fetal tissue donations has taken an even darker turn.
A House committee led by anti-abortion Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is on the verge of issuing 17 subpoenas to medical companies to gather the names of medical researchers, graduate students, laboratory technicians, and administrative staff who are in any way involved in fetal tissue research.
According to Blackburn: “We are going to review the business practices of these procurement organizations and do some investigating of how they have constructed a for-profit business model from selling baby body parts.”
The committee — called the “Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives” by the conservative representatives behind it — was originally created by former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to find out if Planned Parenthood has any involvement with the sale of fetal tissue, an idea sparked by a now-discredited undercover video campaign. Every that conducted similar investigations failed to turn up any evidence to support this claim.
This new focus — that many say threaten the lives and livelihood of anyone involved in research that uses fetal tissue — openly exhibits the GOP’s wild mission to find someone to hold accountable for a baseless accusation made in a few discredited attack videos. The attack has spiraled so far into broad areas of the medical industry, it’s almost hard to remember it’s solely rooted in lawmaker’s beliefs about abortion.
The researchers and technicians in question fear this attack could effectively halt critical research that depends on fetal tissue samples — including researching cures for the Zika virus, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, and many other fatal conditions. Of course, many also fear that making the researchers’ names public could seriously endanger their lives.
This isn’t the first round of subpoenas issued by the committee. Earlier in the year, Blackburn issued requests for documents to more than 30 agencies to dissect the conversations between medical supply companies and researchers.
At the committees' first hearing on March 2, multiple committee members questioned Blackburn on her investigation, concerned that she was using the committee's name to lead a personal attack. Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D-NY) warned her of the serious implications.
"The committee has no rules in place to protect the names of those subpoenaed — raising the possibility of Congress effectively painting targets on the backs of scientists and researchers for no particular reason other than the Republicans’ desire for a culture war," he said.
But, unlike the newest round of subpoenas, none of these called for a list of names.
Opponents in Congress, including every Democratic member of Blackburn's House committee, have said her request for specific information about researchers is eerily reminiscent of former Sen. Joseph McCarthy's crusade against communism in the 1950s. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) even likened the investigation to the Salem Witch Trials.
"This time, those being burned at the stake are our scientists, who hold future medical breakthroughs in their hands," said Speier at the March hearing. "They are joined by brave women’s healthcare workers who are simply trying to care for their patients."
The looming subpoenas are especially unsettling for universities, whose lead researchers and students are at risk. Some schools and organizations have blacked out the names of the researchers in documents already requested by the House committee -- but this new round of subpoenas wouldn't allow for this security measure.
"We’ve been trying to educate policy makers about why this research is needed and why it can’t be replicated in other ways," David Moore, senior director of government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), told the New York Times. Earlier this month, AAMC penned a letter to lawmakers citing “grave concerns” about legislation restricting fetal tissue research, signed by more than 50 medical organizations.