The Austin Chronicle

Texas Lawmakers Continue Anti-Abortion Witch Hunt

By Mary Tuma, April 28, 2016, 5:10pm, Newsdesk

Texas lawmakers continued their anti-abortion witch hunt on Thursday morning under the guise of conducting a committee hearing ostensibly focused on fetal tissue research, albeit this time with a little less spectacle.

The House State Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, met to “study the policies used by research and medical entities to adhere to the highest ethical standards for acquiring human fetal tissue for medical and scientific purposes.” Specifically, the committee was, among other directives from House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to determine whether additional disclosure and reporting requirements, “are necessary to ensure moral and ethical research practices.” Cook is expected to consider filing legislation next session aimed at tightening fetal tissue donation rules.

The meeting is a direct response to the allegations of fetal tissue sale by Planned Parenthood facilities purported by undercover, heavily edited videos from anti-choice activist group the Center for Medical Progress. The claims have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing in Texas or any other state. In fact, in January a Harris County grand jury decided to indict David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, two of the activists involved in making the allegations against the reproductive health provider with second-degree felonies for tampering with government records; they found no misconduct on the part of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. Moreover, no Planned Parenthood facility in Texas currently partakes in fetal tissue donation programs. (According to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the health provider was not invited to testify on Thursday.)

Despite all this, lawmakers continue to press abortion providers and regulators over their involvement with fetal tissue research, searching in vain for a problem that does not exist. Over the summer a similar hearing held by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee featured a train of vehement anti-choice advocates that used the platform to bash Planned Parenthood and abortion care services. Unlike the July hearing, Thursday’s meeting at least featured a more balanced roster of testifiers, including medical professionals and state health officials. However, the anti-choice camp was well-represented, again using government-funded time as a soapbox to criticize abortion providers based on unfounded claims.

Jennifer Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said that even if the videos were highly edited the footage still showcased the “chilling” disregard for the human body and abortion providers’ denial of humanity. There should be clear requirements for informed consent for fetal tissue use, but that’s lacking when it comes to abortion, she said. “Who is more voiceless than the aborted, unborn child?” said Allmon. Arguing that fetal tissue research from aborted fetuses should be banned, Allmon compared the practice to German war crimes prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials. Stoking the hyperbole, Catherine Foster with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pseudo-science group devoted to ending abortion, pushed the idea that the end game for abortion clinics when it comes to fetal tissue is profit. Incorrectly using the term “baby parts,” Foster delivered a handful of shock-value comparisons to highlight her disgust, including likening the sale of fetal tissue to “serving chicken liver in styrofoam trays,” and a transaction at a “grocery store meat counter.” Getting to her true intentions, Foster said aside from handling fetal tissue “with dignity” the deeper issue is that the abortion industry continues to prey upon Texas women.

When it came to John Hellestedt and Kathy Perkins of the Department of State Health Services, the heavy grilling over abortion facility regulation made it easy to forget the hearing was meant to focus on fetal tissue research. Perkins saw a series of questions about abortion clinic inspections and held that clinics are visited at least annually in random and unannounced one- to two-day site inspections that include examining procedure rooms, reviewing facility policies, and checking out a sample patient medical record log. In the past five years, the department took 12 enforcement actions, said Perkins. Infection control was reported as the most frequent violation, which is also one of the highest violations among other state health facilities. Both reminded the committee the health department does not have authority over tissue sale or donation. (In a curious exchange, Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, asked Perkins what she might need legislatively to do her job regulating abortion clinics better. With a laugh, Perkins responded she’d like to discuss it privately. So much for transparency.)

The most relevant testimony came from Dr. Raymond Greenberg, the University of Texas System executive vice chancellor for health affairs. Greenberg put things into perspective: Only three UT System institutions engage in fetal tissue research. The studies are funded by the federal government and the procurement process is in compliance with federal and state laws. None of its fetal tissue comes from abortion clinics; instead they’re from a bioresearch nonprofit in California. Fetal tissue research is centered around ways to reduce infant mortality rates and congenital health problems. In other words, helping the pre-born and infants is at stake if the Lege goes on a regulation frenzy over fetal tissue research just to spite Planned Parenthood. (Feel free to process the irony there at your leisure.) “While this research is only a small part of our collective scientific enterprise, it is work that would be difficult or impossible to do in other ways, and which is typically focused on conditions that have a huge impact on the lives of those affected,” said Greenberg.

Last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, facing multiple felony indictments, launched criminal and civil investigations into Planned Parenthood over the fetal tissue sale claims. To date, no findings have been released.

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