Stem-cell research has already led to a multitude of treatments.

Photographer: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

House Republicans Wage War on Medical Research

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The House Energy and Commerce Committee has a Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives that has held only two hearings since it was created a year ago. Its meetings are marked by walkouts and little substantive discussion. Many House members, including some Republicans, hope it will expire by year-end.

Some medical experts say this special committee may seem like a joke but is nonetheless having a chilling effect on important medical research. The issue is the use of fetal tissue taken from aborted fetus that would otherwise be discarded.

QuickTake U.S. Abortion Fight

The genesis of the panel was a secret and selectively edited video of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of these tissues. The language was indelicate, actually stupid, and Planned Parenthood apologized. But the notion that there was a racket illicitly making money from the sale of fetal tissue is bogus.

Yet that's the premise of the special panel chaired by Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a Republican who is a staunch opponent of abortion. The point of a select committee is to provide oversight and correct public abuses, perhaps leading to legislation.

A spokesman for the panel says its purpose is the "important task" of seeing if any abortion clinics or procurement organizations are making a profit from the sale of fetal tissue, which would be a violation of federal law.

Planned Parenthood and other targets of the panel have supplied detailed information showing they do not make a profit on these interventions, but actually lose money. Since the video was aired, there have been 17 state and federal investigations that have turned up no wrongdoing. 

The select panel was born of pure politics. After the video surfaced, conservatives wanted to shut down the government unless Planned Parenthood was defunded. (None of the federal funds to Planned Parenthood, which engages in a range of women's health issues, can be used for abortion.) The panel was appointed to avoid a showdown.

It hasn't achieved anything of substance, but has energized activists who go after fetal-tissue suppliers. This is causing problems for some projects.

"There is a chilling effect on some avenues of research," says Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "One project that was developing discarded fetal material as a therapy for multiple sclerosis has been discontinued because of the absence of donated material." Researchers have provided other similar examples.

The prestigious Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston no longer accepts applications from researchers seeking fetal tissue from abortions performed there. Hospital officials said the decision wasn't directly related to the House panel's criticisms but to the overall environment. 

The panel is threatening a stem-cell provider, StemExpress, with a contempt citation. The committee spokesman said the small California company has "refused to fully comply and turn over all its required accounting and banking records."

The company and the committee's Democrats say it has turned over 1,700 pages of documents and offered witnesses to explain business practices, including how fetal tissue work is a money-loser.

Fetal-tissue research and abortion shouldn't be linked. This research has gone on in the U.S. since the earlier part of the last century. These tissues offer important differences with other stem cells and have made unique contributions to research.    

"Fetal tissue continues to be a critical resource for important efforts such as research on degenerative eye diseases, human development disorders such as Down syndrome and infectious diseases among a host of other diseases," the Department of Health and Human Services reports.

Fetal cells have helped develop vaccines for rubella, chicken pox and polio. They are currently being used in trials for a variety of disease treatments, including Parkinson's and diabetes.

In response to the committee, the UCLA Medical Center noted that "human fetal tissues exhibit biological properties that are distinct from those of tissues derived from children or adults, and these properties, often related to an enhanced capacity for growth and regeneration can be highly desirable for the development of novel therapies."

But Blackburn's panel shows little interest in these realities. Under House rules, the majority is supposed to consult with the other side before issuing subpoenas. But 36 have been issued with no consultation. (Sixteen years ago a House committee held a hearing titled "Fetal Tissue: Is It Being Sold in Violation of Federal Law" in which the chief accuser of misconduct was forced to admit he had lied.)

Democrats suspect that the committee, with few results, will try to extend its life into the next Congress. Assuming Republicans keep their House majority that poses a dilemma for Speaker Paul Ryan. He praised an interim report that outside experts called flawed.

But after an election that seems likely to make the Republican right seem out of the mainstream, the sensible course would be to let this partisan witch hunt mercifully end.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net