Republican leaders in Congress launched an investigation of Planned Parenthood on Wednesday after a video from a conservative activist group went viral online implying that the nonprofit organization sold organs and tissues obtained from abortions. It has also brought into question the use of fetal tissue in scientific and medical research.
According to Letitia Stein and Julie Steenhuysen of Reuters, the video, which was secretly shot by California-based anti-abortion group the Center for Medical Progress, showed Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services Dr. Deborah Nucatola discuss the harvesting of body parts from aborted fetuses with fake buyers from a biological company. Based on that video, House Speaker John Boehner announced that appropriate congressional committees would look into "the grisly practices embraced by Planned Parenthood."
"When an organization monetizes an unborn child - and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video - we must all act," the Ohio Republican said in a statement.
According to Reuters, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said it would investigate whether fetal body parts were illegally sold for profit. Republican governors in Louisiana and Texas also announced they would be investigating the matter.
Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferrero slammed the video as an attempt to besmirch its reputation. He contended that the reproductive health organization followed legal and ethical guidelines that allowed women to donate fetal tissue for scientific research with consent and that no one gained financially from the transaction.
"These outrageous claims are flat-out untrue, but that doesn't matter to politicians with a longstanding political agenda to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood," Ferrero said in a statement.
Although the outcry is mostly coming from Republican leaders in Congress, Reuters reported that some of Planned Parenthood's key supporters stood by the organization.
"[The] verbiage could have been different, but you don't judge an organization by the words of one employee," Texas attorney Steve Mostyn said, adding that he has given more than $1 million to Planned Parenthood last year.
According to Reuters, human fetal tissue was in high demand for medical research purposes in the 1990s. Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center's Department of Population Health, elaborated on the legality behind its controversial use.
"It's legal to obtain fetal tissue. You are not supposed to sell it. You can certainly make it available," Caplan said.
However, Caplan pointed out that a few companies now collect the tissue and "charge a lot for it."
"I'm not sure people who donate it realize that," Caplan said.
According to Reuters, Planned Parenthood claimed that it followed applicable laws and ethical standards regarding human fetal tissue for research purposes. It stated that occasionally reimbursing costs, such as transportation to research centers, were "standard medical practice."
"Under federal law, selling human fetal tissue across state lines is punishable by fines of up to $500,000 and a prison sentence of up to 10 years," Stein and Steenhuysen wrote. "However, the law allows 'reasonable payments' for costs such as transportation and storage."
The National Institutes of Health issued a statement saying that research involving human fetal tissue is done "under its general legal authorities to conduct biomedical research to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability." According to Reuters, the government agency defined fetal tissue as "coming from a dead embryo or fetus following a stillbirth, or a spontaneous or induced abortion."
"The NIH last year funded $76 million in medical research involving the use of human fetal tissue that spanned a range of topics," Stein and Steenhuysen wrote.
For examples, Reuters pointed out that Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions used fetal tissue to investigate "antibodies that can neutralize the HIV virus that causes AIDS." Stanford University in California relied on human fetal tissue "in efforts to make more effective chicken pox and shingles vaccines."
According to Jodie Tillman of the Orange County Register, scientists have used fetal tissue in research since the 1930s.
"Human fetal kidney cells, for instance, were used to develop the polio vaccine that led to the 1954 Nobel Prize in medicine," Tillman wrote.
Caplan pointed out that the use of fetal tissue had its limits, especially after the idea of using it to treat Parkinson's disease and diabetes never materialized. Reuters highlighted that the supply of human fetal tissue has largely been replaced by adult stem cells and other sources.
"Fetal cells turned out to be hard to control," Caplan said.
David Magnus, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, told the Orange County Register that CMP was more interested in stopping abortions as opposed to questioning the details of fetal tissue research.
"It doesn't require agreement with abortion any more than saying you are complicit with murder if you use the organs of a person who has been shot," Magnus said. "I don't think the real target in this campaign is fetal tissue research. The real target is Planned Parenthood."
Although Caplan admitted that "the need for [fetal] tissue is not great," he expressed skepticism that the video could spur a useful conversation.
"The chance of getting a straight answer in this political climate is remote," Caplan said. "The notion that Congress is going to examine this in the middle of a heavily political year is pretty much a guarantee we're not going to get a straight answer."