Planned Parenthood fallout puts fetal tissue research in jeopardy

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One month ago, six Planned Parenthood clinics allowed women to donate aborted fetus tissue for medical research. Now, there are just two that do — a sign that the future of the programs could be in serious jeopardy.

Planned Parenthood has fiercely defended its fetal tissue donations in the face of attacks from an anti-abortion rights organization this summer. But the steady stream of undercover videos of the organization’s operations is taking a toll on its affiliates and partners.

{mosads}The fallout from the videos was detailed for the first time last Friday in an 11-page letter sent to congressional leadership by Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.

Three affiliates in California have stopped accepting fetal tissue donations because of controversy surrounding the videos, including one provider that received “security threats,” Richards said. Another affiliate has postponed its program while undergoing renovations, she said.

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood declined to comment on when, if ever, the tissue programs might resume. She also declined to give the names of the providers and the partners that have suspended the programs, citing safety concerns.

Richards also quietly announced an internal review into Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue policies and processes, which will be in addition to the half-dozen investigations that have been launched in Congress. Another committee in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) could also evaluate the overall use of fetal tissue donation this year, which would be its first comprehensive review of such programs in two decades.

Separately, at least one institution — Colorado State University — has suspended its program until the video controversy is fully investigated. Faculty are now asked to “seek alternatives” for their research, the university’s president, Tony Frank, wrote in response to a letter to Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).

While fetal tissue research is widely accepted in the medical world, some experts say providers are likely taking caution in the wake of the video controversy spurred by The Center for Medical Progress in mid-July.

“Without question, the scientific community is not interested in being in the cross hairs of this,” said Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Of course people are going to be looking hard if there’s any way they can evade this controversy and still get this work done,” she said, adding that some research — such as ongoing clinical trials — would be difficult to immediately halt.

The Center for Medical Progress has released nine secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials and their partners, attempting to portray them as traffickers of fetal body parts. The footage does not show any apparent illegal activity, but the bluntness of the discussions has stirred a national backlash.

Conservative lawmakers are eying tougher laws against the practice in states such as Wisconsin and Missouri, while congressional Republicans remain focused on defunding Planned Parenthood as a whole.

The developments are raising the hopes of anti-abortion rights activists who are fighting to phase out the use of fetal tissue in research.

“Fetal tissue in itself is an antiquated type of research that’s kind of on its way out,” said Dr. David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

Prentice acknowledged that fetal tissue was once instrumental in developing treatments for diseases such as polio but said scientific advancements now allow scientists to use stem cells instead.

“They don’t make polio vaccines using fetal tissue anymore,” said Prentice, who is also a professor at The Catholic University of America. “It’s obviously our hope that it’s on the way out.”

The campaign team of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has made the same argument. The presidential candidate has come under fire for a research paper bearing his name that used fetal tissue.

“There is little or virtually no need for the fetal tissue that people have pointed to,” Doug Watts, an adviser to Carson, said in an interview, pointing to the “large banks of archived fetal tissue.”

Carson’s campaign has tried to distance him from fetal tissue research, arguing that his name was included only because he provided tissue from a brain tumor that was obtained from a child. “That’s it, end of role,” Watts said, adding, “It’s a different era.”

Several high-profile researchers have taken different stances on the need for fetal tissue in the wake of the videos. Many have argued that fetal tissue is a crucial way to study diseases and develop new treatments. Hundreds of universities use fetal tissue research in some way, many with funding from the federal government.

Federal grants on fetal tissue research is expected to reach its highest-ever level next year, rising to $77 million, though it remains a fraction of the NIH’s yearly budget. That’s a jump from $17 million in 1999, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The study of fetal tissue has been steadily growing since the mid 1970s, when it became easier to obtain after Roe v. Wade.

Debate fired back up in the 1990s, when international medical researchers found some evidence that fetal tissue could treat diseases such as Parkinson’s. The new studies were hailed as a potential breakthrough, and in 1993, both chambers of Congress supported legislation to restore federal funding for fetal tissue research.

The bill was signed by now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — something that Planned Parenthood has been quick to point out.

Today, public support for the use of fetal tissue for research is mixed, with 48 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving of it, according to last week’s poll by Fox News.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University School of Medicine, said fetal tissue researchers will be anxiously watching state legislatures across the country, even if the issue fades in Washington.

“I think there are certainly people nervous about what their state legislature might do,” he said, pointing to bills to ban fetal tissue research in Wisconsin and Alabama. “You’re certainly not going to run around saying, ‘Let’s keep our fetal tissue programs going.’”

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