Chuck Grassley sets stage for AG Sessions

First order of business, attack orgs that serve women, science

As the nation prepares for its next transition of power, it appears everything old and discredited is new again.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is calling for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice to investigate four Planned Parenthood affiliates in California, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and three privately-held California medical research companies regarding their work with fetal tissues.

The Judiciary Committee began its review after the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, released a series of highly edited video clips in 2015. The clips were presented to the public as proof Planned Parenthood profited from the illegal sale of tissues.

Two of the people who created and released the video clips were later indicted on felony charges of tampering with a governmental record, as well as a misdemeanor charge involving purchase of human organs.

Federal law allows human organs, tissues and more to be sold for research. Organizations providing the specimens are allowed only to recoup their costs, not to transfer them for profit. But statements made to that effect by the Planned Parenthood employees routinely landed on the editing room floor.

The specimens are used throughout the country by researchers studying eye disease, HIV, autism, cancer and other conditions. Although some might find the process distasteful or in conflict with religious belief, such research has been legally taking place for decades.

And this isn’t the first time Republicans have used the discredited videos to scrutinize Planned Parenthood.

The House Oversight Committee launched its highly-publicized investigation, demanding and receiving hours of testimony from PPFA President Cecile Richards. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce formed a new group, the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, to explore allegations based on the videos. Five congressional committees launched investigative hearings, and numerous states began their own inquiries.

As Republican lawmakers shouted about the “sale of dead baby parts” the normally quiet work of medical research companies came under fire by anti-abortion activists. Employees received personal threats; company security was called to remove people from outside the home of one company’s chief executive.

At that time, Grassley told the Associated Press that his committee’s investigation was not focused on a single organization. The goal, he said, is “to see if the laws on fetal tissue should be changed in light of the actual practices of the organizations.”

Yet, to date, not one investigation, including Grassley’s, has suggested federal law be altered or revisited.

“Over a year after Republicans began pouring taxpayer dollars into five separate congressional investigations, there has been no credible finding — including in the Republican Staff Report issued today — that Planned Parenthood broke the law,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Leahy added that the report Grassley turned over to the DOJ and FBI “has never been voted on or adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee as an official report.”

Voted on or not, the timing of Grassley’s release is everything.

In a few weeks, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is expected to be confirmed as U.S. Attorney General and begin leading the DOJ. And while the clock might have run out on the ability of Congress to continue to investigate debunked allegations against Planned Parenthood, historically anti-abortion and anti-women Sessions will be well positioned to accept the baton.

As the findings of all of these congressional investigations have already proven, the flap was never about federal law surrounding human tissue and research. The investigations, just like the videos, sought to isolate those who uncomfortably support abortion, those who would find the use of aborted fetuses in medical research repulsive.

Planned Parenthood’s decision to no longer accept legally-protected reimbursement costs has made no difference in the tenor of the investigations or debate. It would likewise make no difference if Planned Parenthood denied women the option of donating fetal remains for research.

Standing atop his partisan report, Grassley is recommending criminal charges. No doubt Sessions will oblige.

Yet no matter the outcome, the very thing that so many said they found repulsive about the video clips — sale of fetal tissue for research — will continue. Despite the millions spent on investigations, or the millions more to come, distasteful laws were never at risk.

The swamp, it seems, will just have to wait.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on December 18, 2016. Photo credit: Adam Wesley/The Gazette