Senate Panel "Investigates" Allegations That Planned Parenthood Sold Fetal Tissue

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee's inquiry into whether Planned Parenthood has participated in the illegal sale of fetal tissue got off to an unsurprisingly vitriolic start on Wednesday. 

The committee's hearing was prompted by the release of videos this month produced by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. The videos apparently show California-based Planned Parenthood affiliates discussing how fetal organs are harvested and donated—bluntly and graphically enough that Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards had to apologize for the employee's  tone. That same group, posing as medical researchers with a fake company called Biomax, also paid a visit to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston, using fake California IDs, according to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast spokeswoman Rochelle Tafolla. 

Despite Texas-based Planned Parenthood leaders saying that organization has not participated in fetal tissue donation—which is legal—since 2011, the videos have led Texas Republican leaders to wonder, or nearly assert, otherwise. Planned Parenthood has said that even then, it was not profiting from any “sale,” but only being reimbursed for any costs associated with shipping donated tissue to medical research facilities. The most recent went to University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, used to study how to prevent miscarriage, according to Tafolla.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is heading one of three state investigations into the matter, has "gained possession" of CMP's latest video of that encounter, which he says is “consistent” with conversations shown in the previous CMP videos. 

And regarding the investigation, Paxton seemed to have already made up his mind, telling committee members Wednesday, “At a minimum, the people involved project a cold, calculating, almost inhuman indifference to the lives they treat as a product they’re attempting to sell.” He also reminded the committee of what appeared to be the real issue at hand. “More than any misdeeds involving the sale of aborted baby parts is this fundamental truth: the true abomination in all this is the institution of abortion.”

That comment, and many similar ones from pro-lifers in the room, came in spite of Sen. Jose Rodriguez's (D-El Paso) early confirmation that, “This hearing is not intended to be about abortion or the rights in general, correct?” He and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) tried to reorient the discussion with little reminders about "fact-finding" and making sure the committee was seeing "the whole picture" throughout the hearing. But it was clear that wouldn't be so likely beginning with the earliest opening remarks from Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), who described Planned Parenthood's behavior as "despicable," "disgusting," and "morally reprehensible," among other things. (Remember, these are the same legislators that passed HB2 in 2013, which threatens to shutter nearly all abortion facilities in Texas by forcing clinics to upgrade to ambulatory surgical centers—financially impossible for most.)

The testifying witnesses that followed Paxton included a passionate quartet of pro-lifers, including Texas Right to Life and Texas Alliance for Life. Representatives of the Department of State Health Services offered what was perhaps the most objective segment of the day's investigation—though they explained DSHS had little to no jurisdiction over anything related to the donation of fetal tissue. 

Republican committee chairman Charles Schwertner voiced his disappointment on several occasions that Planned Parenthood rejected his invitation to testify—though Planned Parenthood's general counsel crashed the party halfway through the four-and-a-half-hour hearing to deliver her client's written testimony. In a written statement explaining why the organization would not testify, Planned Parenthood CEO and President Melaney A. Linton said, “This committee has made it abundantly clear that it has no desire to hold a responsible, fair, fact driven hearing. It is clear that this committee cares more about political gamesmanship than the truth.” Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas was also invited to testify, which was pretty confusing for them, given the organization had "never participated in fetal tissue donation or research," CEO Ken Lambrecht wrote to the committee.

And so instead of hearing from Planned Parenthood's current employees, the committee got to hear a ton from famed anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, who actually worked at Planned Parenthood between 2007 and 2009, and other activists who voiced that they would never support fetal tissue research, period.

No matter to Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), who wondered whether Planned Parenthood is in violation of the law for conspiracy to sell the tissue in the first place, based on his observations of the fake company dishing Planned Parenthood a fake contract that it never accepted.

Sen. Rodriguez, at least, offered some more relevant questions : Why weren't the two universities who had received fetal tissue donations in the past—UTMB and Texas Tech—invited to testify? And that fraudulent company, whose workers allegedly used fake IDs to gain access to Planned Parenthood in Houston—are they under investigation too?

Paxton deferred comment, as he did to most other questions. The investigation is ongoing, after all.

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn