Weren’t we discussing fetal tissue?

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How did we move from supposed outrage about undercover videos regarding the use of fetal tissue in medical research, to proposed legislation and Congressional hearings to discredit and defund a single women’s health care organization?

In 1993, an overwhelming majority of Congress, including the Iowans serving there, agreed using fetal tissue for research was acceptable, and established a law by which organizations like hospitals and abortion clinics could be reimbursed for associated costs.

It wasn’t the first time ethics surrounding use of spontaneously or electively aborted fetuses for such purposes was discussed. The conversation has been ongoing since the early 1930s, but reached a fevered pitch after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe decision.

In the 1950s, fetal kidney tissue was used to create the first polio vaccine, leading to a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Other common vaccines — chickenpox, rubella, shingles and others — have been produced with tissue taken from fetuses, mostly from elective terminations in the 1960s (before Roe).

Activists chant as they rally in support of Planned Parenthood on "National Pink Out Day" on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2015. Planned Parenthood is embroiled in a debate about fetal tissue sparked by highly edited videos.
Activists chant as they rally in support of Planned Parenthood on “National Pink Out Day” on the steps of City Hall in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2015. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The current law, which allows selective use of fetal tissue for research if providers seek only reimbursement costs, has stood for more than 20 years, but debate continues.

In 1999, Colorado Republican and former GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo launched a House investigation after an anti-abortion activist performed an undercover sting operation and claimed to have proof of “trafficking of baby body parts for profit.” Sound familiar?

While these hearings resulted in no research changes, they did set the stage for a related law.

Building on fears that women were putting off abortions until later in their pregnancies, when organs were more fully developed, and that doctors were purposefully using a procedure known as D&X to deliver intact fetuses ­for researchers, lawmakers passed in 2003 what they labeled as a “partial birth abortion ban.”

Although it didn’t limit abortions, even those performed late-term, it effectively outlawed a medical procedure considered one of the safest for women. Still many politicians ran on their involvement.

The American public, unaccustomed to blunt and disturbing medical information, didn’t really care, so long as they were allowed to look away. And politicians learned that if stark, medical details upset voters’ stomachs, changes could be made.

Given this backdrop, the most recent crop of edited videos suggesting the “sale of baby body parts” should have come as no surprise. What we should find surprising, however, is that somehow the very thing introduced as the most offensive isn’t what members of Congress are investigating.Where are the leaders banging their fists on the table and demanding the government revisit regulations on use of fetal tissue for medical research?

In 2000, following the other uproar over supposed trafficking violations, the Government Accountability Office reported that there was no incentive for commercial exploitation of fetal tissue. Has that changed? Are any medical researchers or tissue providers being arrested or fined for violating the law?

The truth is, of course, that there is no large-scale investigation directed toward what supposedly made us all so upset. The fate of fetal tissue was never the point — only the most radical believe humans are being bred for research.

The videos are a legal end run — targeting access to abortion that has, thus far, withstood political saber-rattling. Women unable to access health care services if this end run is successful? Collateral damage. Just ask Texans.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 3, 2015. Photo credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters