For Republicans, fight over fetal tissue research comes back to Planned Parenthood

A hearing focused on alternatives to fetal tissue research devolved into a familiar and partisan fight often had on Capitol Hill: whether the federal government should fund Planned Parenthood.

Anti-abortion groups and Republicans in Congress have led the charge this year in pushing the administration to cancel more than $100 million a year in contracts the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends on projects that involve fetal tissue, arguing that better alternatives are available.

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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, chaired by government affairs subcommittee Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan GOP struggles with retirement wave Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing MORE (R-N.C.), looked to add pressure this week as the Trump administration tries to reach a decision about how to move forward.

Republicans argue taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for research projects that use fetal tissue when alternatives exist, especially when their money is already going to Planned Parenthood. 

 While federal funds are prohibited from going toward abortions, Republicans argue the money Planned Parenthood gets from family planning grants and Medicaid reimbursements indirectly supports the procedure. 

“Taxpayers are paying on the front end for something that many of the folks that I get the privilege to represent just think is absolutely wrong — giving money to Planned Parenthood, which is taking life from unborn kids,” Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel Jordan Trump slams Democrats as 'shameful' after Lewandowski hearing Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader House Republicans want details on Democrats' trips to Mexico MORE (R-Ohio) said at the hearing.

“And then paying on the back end for the very tissue that was used in a practice they don’t approve of to get results that can be achieved with alternatives.”

The hearing reopened old wounds left by the emergence of heavily edited videos released in 2015 that purported to show a Planned Parenthood employee discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Advanced Bioscience Resources Inc. (ABR), a fetal tissue firm, was alleged in the videos to buy tissue from Planned Parenthood to sell for profit, which is against the law.

Several state investigations found no evidence of wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood’s part.

But Republicans on Tuesday cited the videos as a reason the use of fetal tissue for research is unethical and immoral.

“Our constituents’ tax money goes to Planned Parenthood, then Planned Parenthood provides abortion services. When they sell fetal tissue to these companies, like those in the videos we saw, and then the government takes the money and buys fetal tissue from those companies,” Jordan said.

“All we’re asking is, let’s go with the alternatives. That’s as simple as it gets.”

Supporters of fetal tissue research argue it's crucial to developing therapies and vaccines for diseases like HIV and Zika, and that alternatives, like adult stem cells, can’t serve as a substitute in all cases.

“The critical thing is it won’t substitute for every application and every disease,” Dr. Sally Temple, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, testified in the hearing Tuesday.

“Scientists will only use fetal tissue if it’s essential, and if it’s important. You can’t misrepresent the science. Currently, those alternatives are not adequate.”

Democrats called the hearing a farce and are likely to hold the administration’s feet to the fire for any decision it makes on fetal tissue when the party assumes the House majority in January.

Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), the incoming chair of the Energy & Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said she will "hold a series about substantive hearing about this important research" next year. 

The administration already canceled one $16,000 contract with ABR earlier this summer and launched a broad review of other projects.

While the review is still ongoing, the administration has warned the University of California at San Francisco that its $2 million contract for research might be canceled, according to The Washington Post.

The Post also reported that the Department of Health and Human Services paused the acquisition of fetal tissue at an NIH lab doing HIV research in Montana.

The NIH announced this week that it would offer up to $20 million in grants to organizations that would research fetal tissue alternatives.

“I’m troubled by the recent actions the Trump administration has taken to undermine fetal tissue research,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.).

“I fear it will hamper our ability to research cures, vaccines, or therapies for afflictions that basically tear apart the lives of millions of people around the world.”

This story was updated at 8:09 p.m.