Democrats walk out of GOP-led Planned Parenthood hearing

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The special committee formed last year to investigate connections between abortion providers and fetal tissue researchers is still going strong. Despite numerous calls from House Democrats to shut down, the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives is continuing to find new ways to harass scientists.

On Wednesday, Republicans on the committee voted to hold small California biotech firm StemExpress in contempt for failing to furnish all of the information that lawmakers subpoenaed.

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StemExpress was thrust into the center of the controversy over Planned Parenthood last year when an anti-abortion activist accused the national women’s health organization of selling “aborted baby parts.” StemExpress — which has since severed ties with Planned Parenthood — used to work with some abortion clinics to gather fetal tissue samples from patients who chose to donate those materials to scientific research.

Among other things, the GOP-led committee is seeking a list of names of the company’s employees, including laboratory technicians — a request that StemExpress has resisted to protect its workers’ privacy and safety.

Refusing to participate in what ranking member Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) called an “illegitimate and unsanctioned effort,” Democrats on the committee walked out before Wednesday’s vote.

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“We refuse to sanction or endorse this exercise by continuing to participate,” she said before leading the walk-out.

After walking out, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) told reporters the proceeding was a “kangaroo court,” according to The Washington Post.

In her opening remarks, Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn listed the extensive information the committee is seeking from StemExpress, including the names of nonpublic customers, its organization chart, and detailed banking records.

“Next, we issued a subpoena requiring StemExpress to provide, among other things, the names of employees involved in the procurement of fetal tissue,” she continued. “StemExpress refused to produce the names, citing safety concerns, despite assurances that we would redact the names.”

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StemExpress’ lawyer, Frank Radoslovich, told STAT that the company has fully cooperated with the subpoena, and has given the committee over 1,700 pages of documents. The company has balked at turning over a list of employee names, however, citing “real threats” to employees safety.

“We have a real, legitimate interest in protecting the privacy of our employees,” Radoslovich said. “We have a panel of zealots that have already proven that they will disclose or mischaracterize documents, or just flat-out make up things and attribute it to us. We can’t be put in a position to further endanger employees.”

Since the release of deceptively edited — and now widely discredited — videos alleging that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue to medical researchers, StemExpress has been targeted with hundreds of threats, including personal threats to CEO Cate Dyer, including a $10,000 bounty on her head.

StemExpress may have good reason to be skeptical of Blackburn’s pledge that its employees’ names will be publicly redacted. In June, the committee sent two public letters to the Obama administration containing the un-redacted names and contact information of researchers at the company, university and hospital researchers, and Planned Parenthood staffers. The un-redacted information was also posted to the committee’s website.

At the time, Blackburn characterized it as staff error, and the documents were removed from the website, though the names were still accessible in links sent to the press in Blackburn’s original news release.

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Democrats, who had warned that by asking for researchers’ information the committee was “effectively painting targets on the backs of scientists and researchers,” slammed Republicans on the panel for their “reckless disregard for protecting private information.”

“Inexplicably, anti-abortion activists have learned of confidential information provided to the Panel — raising the specter that the Republicans may be funneling confidential information back to those individuals and groups,” Rep. Schakowsky said in a press statement when the memo leaked.

“This Panel has shown a reckless disregard for protecting private information.”

Despite the panel’s continued investigation, numerous state and federal probes into allegations that Planned Parenthood was engaged in illegal fetal tissue sales have come up empty — instead, the only people to be indicted were the videographers who made the videos that set off the firestorm, though those charges were eventually dropped.

Meanwhile, outside of Congress, scientists warn that targeting fetal tissue research — and the universities, researchers, and biotech companies that legally use fetal tissue research — puts live-saving research at risk. Fetal tissue research is crucial to finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. In addition to the committee’s current quest to force StemExpress to effectively out their employees, the continued harassment threatens to dissuade researchers from engaging in fetal tissue research at all.