clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Congress has spent 15 months “investigating” Planned Parenthood using McCarthy-like tactics

A phalanx of House Republicans celebrate passing a bill to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.
A phalanx of House Republicans celebrate passing a bill to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It's been almost a year and a half since a series of misleadingly edited videos attacking Planned Parenthood set off a flurry of investigations into whether the organization illegally "sold" fetal tissue to researchers for profit.

Not a single one of those investigations — in 20 states and four separate Congressional committees — has turned up a shred of evidence that Planned Parenthood did anything wrong.

But one other Benghazi-style special Congressional committee, the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, is still going — 15 months and nearly $1.6 million later — even though the videos that led to its creation have been thoroughly discredited. Numerous major media outlets have concluded that the videos, released by a group of anti-abortion activists who called themselves the Center for Medical Progress, were blatant propaganda, and that it's pointless to continue "investigating" them.

Democrats on the committee have been calling to disband it for months. On Monday, they released a blistering 112-page report that accused their Republican-majority colleagues of violating House procedures, abusing their power, and using "McCarthy-era tactics to demand names and bully witnesses" as a "political weapon to punish women, their doctors, and researchers."

The panel's Republicans plan to release their own report "in the coming weeks," a panel spokesman told Vox. "After a year of diligent work, we look forward to sharing our findings with the American people," he said.

But by all appearances — as detailed in the Democrats' report, and based on the reporting I've done both on the select panel since its inception and on the similar hearings that preceded it — Republicans on the select committee have abused their subpoena power to intimidate doctors and medical researchers, flouted House rules and traditions, and used shoddy evidence to promote a predetermined, partisan conclusion instead of making any genuine efforts at fact-finding.

Excessive scrutiny from the House panel has interfered with the jobs of scientists and medical providers. At best, they live in fear of a subpoena. At worst, there's a target on their back for violence from anti-abortion extremists — a nightmare that doctors who provide safe and legal abortion already live with every day.

This is not normal. This is not how congressional committees are supposed to work. The House Select Committee on Infant Lives has been just as blatantly partisan as the Benghazi hearings, and arguably just as abusive and dangerous as the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Red Scare tactics of its contemporary Senator Joe McCarthy.

It's a taxpayer-funded witch hunt, and it's doing active harm to science and medicine.

The panel has recklessly intimidated scientists and researchers

These are real scientists, according to Shutterstock. Congress is hurting real scientists.

Fetal tissue research is incredibly important. It brought us the vaccines against polio and chicken pox, and it could one day bring us the cure to Alzheimer's or diabetes.

Many researchers depend on donations of fetal tissue from abortion providers in order to do their work. And under a bipartisan bill Congress passed in 1992, it's completely legal for abortion providers to make these donations — and to be compensated for their costs, as long as they don't make a profit.

But after the anti-Planned Parenthood propaganda videos smeared fetal tissue donation as "selling baby parts," the entire field of fetal tissue research has come under attack. Some states have started passing or proposing laws banning fetal tissue from being used in research. And with the congressional "investigations," that attack has moved to the federal level.

According to the report, committee chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has issued 42 unilateral subpoenas demanding any and all information about fetal tissue from sources like health care providers, biotech companies, academic institutions, and medical schools.

Any study. Any communication. Any anything, pretty much. The subpoenas were incredibly broad — and Democrats claim that, in direct violation of House rules, they were not consulted and were only given the vaguest of notifications before those subpoenas were issued.

The panel demanded the names and personal information of doctors, researchers, graduate students, and even patients. And as the Democrats' report detailed, some of those names and personal details were released to the public on more than one occasion, despite promises to keep them confidential.

Of those 42 subpoenas, 35 were issued out of the blue without even asking for voluntary compliance first. In other cases, people or institutions got subpoenaed despite making obvious efforts to comply with voluntary requests for information.

The University of New Mexico was particularly targeted. Blackburn demanded the names of staff and students, and even sent "criminal referrals" to several state attorneys general because the hospital allegedly had a "too close" relationship to a nearby abortion clinic — which isn't actually prohibited by state law, the report notes. 

One company that procures tissue for medical research, StemExpress, provided thousands of pages of documents to Congress, according to the report. But Blackburn kept telling them those disclosures weren't enough, and seemed to keep moving the goalposts on what information would suffice. The company sent a letter to Blackburn explaining their compliance — but the only response from Blackburn to that letter came four months later, in the form of a recommendation that StemExpress be held in criminal contempt of Congress.

The implicit goal of these overly broad subpoenas and intimidation tactics appears to be the "silencing of science and scientists," and ultimately to "eliminate all fetal tissue research," wrote Pallavi Phartiyal, senior analyst and program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy, in an April blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"Note that there is no evidence to suggest that any of these people or institutions have anything to do with unlawful procurement of fetal tissue, but they are being targeted anyway," Phartiyal wrote. That includes issuing additional subpoenas to institutions that had already complied, but had just redacted people's names for privacy concerns.

Phartiyal has a background in molecular biology and advocates for science-based decision making in politics. She told Vox in April that she sees a strong parallel between this investigation and the harassment of climate scientists by Republicans on the House Science Committee.

That's the committee that Vox's David Roberts called "worse than the Benghazi committee" because of its "open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation's leading scientists and scientific institutions." The committee went on obvious fishing expeditions, demanding massive piles of information that were already in the public record, plus the scientists' emails and other communications. For no specific purpose. Just to see if they could find something incriminating.

It's the same basic deal here, complete with the aimless fishing. But while the climate science hearings were arguably worse than Benghazi, the fetal tissue hearings are arguably even worse than the climate science ones. Hillary Clinton, Roberts noted, at least had the resources and political acumen to defend herself against intimidation in the overtly political Benghazi hearings. But most scientists, even successful ones, don't. And that goes double for the grad students and medical students who are being targeted here.

"It really does have a long-term chilling effect on a generation of scientists," Phartiyal said. "I especially worry about the early-career students and post-docs who don't really know how to legally defend themselves — and who would definitely question why they are doing research in a field when they can be asked to come testify on the Hill, or have to lawyer up to defend themselves."

It's absolutely essential for scientists to speak out, Phartiyal said, if they want to have any hope of protecting themselves and fighting anti-science lawmaking. But this panel has shown young scientists that doing so might expose them to endless fishing-expedition subpoenas, dead-end Kafkaesque inquisitions, and even threats to their physical safety.

This has dangerous consequences, both for scientists and for science

If scientists and researchers are dragged into the limelight by Congress to talk about fetuses, or are forced to have their name entered into a public record because they work with fetuses, it can actually put their safety in danger.

That's because the systematic terrorism that abortion providers, clinic staff, and volunteers are threatened with every day — from stalking and threats, to "Wanted" posters that feature doctors' photos and addresses, to vandalism and firebombs at clinics — escalated dramatically after the Planned Parenthood videos came out in 2015. And now, the people who use fetal tissue research to try to cure disease are also being terrorized.

One university researcher spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity because the threats he's received have led his institution to post a guard outside his laboratory.

As for the broader harms to science itself, researchers have testified before the select panel that promising studies of diseases like multiple sclerosis have been delayed due to threats and political pressure.

That's partly because those threats and political pressure are causing the supply of fetal tissue to dry up. Some abortion providers and tissue procurement companies have abandoned fetal tissue donation entirely — and not that many of them were even doing it in the first place.

Planned Parenthood testified that only six of their 59 affiliates had participated in fetal tissue research since 2010, and only two of those were still doing it when the videos came out. The only clinic taking any reimbursements at all for their costs decided to stop doing so — even though that reimbursement is legal.

Even if the allegations about "selling" tissue were true in the first place, it would be mathematically ludicrous to imagine that doing so could have been some big moneymaker for Planned Parenthood.

But the attacks on the health provider, both from the Center for Medical Progress and from Republicans in Congress and at the state level, have done a lot of financial damage. One tissue procurement company, Novogenix, even claims that the costs of complying with Congress's demands for information have forced it to stop doing business.

The panel has ignored House rules and relied on embarrassingly bad evidence

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the House select panel Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the House select panel.

To add insult to injury, the proceedings themselves — the whole reason Congress is harassing these scientists in the first place — have been an absolute joke.

Republicans on the committee haven't just demanded irrelevant information from people who had little or nothing to do with the investigation. They've also ignored relevant information from people who did, presented obvious misinformation as fact to justify keeping the whole thing going, and flouted House rules and traditions by keeping their Democratic colleagues in the dark.

They've never once called on David Daleiden or the Center for Medical Progress, who created the anti-Planned Parenthood videos, to testify. Nor have they called any witnesses from tissue procurement companies to actually explain their business practices, opting instead to pepper them with records requests and subpoenas.

StemExpress has practically begged the committee to allow them to testify and explain how their business works. If they had, a letter from representatives of StemExpress explained, committee members would have heard about how StemExpress actually ends up losing about $20,000 a year on fetal tissue programs. While the company overall is profitable, that's in spite of fetal tissue and not because of it.

Panel Republicans, the report says, "only interviewed women who perform abortions or work in the reproductive health care field," half of whom didn't even work with fetal tissue. And Republicans "did not interview a single representative from a tissue procurement organization, despite the fact that the ostensible need for the Panel was to investigate this purported industry."

Many of the questions that panel Republicans asked witnesses, and the "exhibits" that they presented in hearings, appear to have been lifted wholesale from anti-abortion websites or propaganda materials from the Center for Medical Progress. Some of them had no discernible source or verifiable data at all.

Step 3 … profit?
Documents from the Hearing on the Price of Fetal Tissue
Numbers? Hmph! Sources? Hmph!
Documents from the Hearing on the Price of Fetal Tissue

And as outlandish as it sounds, there's good reason to suspect that Republican members of Congress coordinated with Daleiden or the Center for Medical Progress behind the scenes before the videos were released. Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Tim Murphy (R-PA) admitted they'd seen the tapes long before they came out, and point-blank questions at other hearings about coordination with CMP produced some very dodgy exchanges.

Republicans on the panel violated House rules in numerous ways, the Democrats' report alleges — notably, withholding evidence from Democrats on the panel, failing to consult them on subpoenas and letters requesting information until after they had already been sent, and refusing to reimburse travel for pro-choice witnesses while doing so for pro-life witnesses.

The hearings have been blatantly anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood, and they've proceeded more like trials than investigations. The Republicans have been acting like prosecutors, and treating Planned Parenthood like a defendant. It's not the prosecution's job to figure out what really happened — just to convince members of the public that their narrative is the correct one.

But congressional investigations aren't supposed to work like trials. They're supposed to work like investigations. (And if this were actually a trial, the prosecution might well be held in contempt of court for withholding evidence.)

It doesn't matter how many times CMP's claims have been proven wrong, or how often Daleiden's years-long history with other dubious smear campaigns gets pointed out. To some anti-abortion Republicans in Congress, these videos will always be indisputable evidence that Planned Parenthood was caught on tape doing something both immoral and illegal, and that these claims deserve serious investigation.

It doesn't matter how much time or money all of this costs lawmakers or taxpayers. It doesn't matter that violent threats against abortion providers skyrocketed in 2015, and that a gunman ranting about "baby parts" shot up a Planned Parenthood in November in the deadliest-ever attack on a US abortion clinic.

It doesn't matter how many investigations there have already been, and it never will. For the anti-abortion movement and their supporters in Congress, there will always be more investigating to do. There's always the chance that this time, they'll finally expose Planned Parenthood's evil deeds for all the world to see.