A new report indicates that an agency within Obama’s administration purchased aborted babies from a biotech firm Planned Parenthood sells to on a regular basis.
The videos have caused outrage among Republicans, and lawmakers filed a number of measures to try to halt federal funds, which total over $500 million a year of taxpayer money that flows to Planned Parenthood.
Obama and congressional Democrats said they will block any bills that attempt to remove money going to the organization.
One of the companies identified as a fetal tissue supplier in sting videos of Planned Parenthood counts two federal health agencies among its customers, earning at least $300,000 for material used in research of treatments for HIV and eye disease, officials confirmed to POLITICO.
It’s unknown whether the nonprofit, Advanced Bioscience Resources, got any of that fetal tissue from abortions performed at Planned Parenthood clinics.
Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates are pledging to cut federal support for the health provider, with some threatening to shut down the federal government rather than allow funding to continue.
Now the procurements, which have long been an accepted part of the research world, have been thrust into the political spotlight as a leading senator probes several companies involved in the work and their relationship to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood denies that its clinics sell fetal tissue, which is legal to obtain and donate. The organization says the videos by the anti-abortion group, Center for Medical Progress, distort its practice of donating tissue for research with patients’ consent, taking fees only to cover costs.
But after the public outcry, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked three tissue procurement companies mentioned in the sting films, including Advanced Bioscience Resources, for information about their communications with Planned Parenthood and their sales revenue.
Federal officials tell POLITICO that the National Institutes of Health paid Advanced Bioscience Resources of Alameda, Caliornia, $257,000 since 2009, including about $53,000 in 2014 — a tiny fraction of the $3.4 billion budget for studies conducted at NIH’s Bethesda campus that year. The officials couldn’t provide a breakdown of how much of that was spent on fetal tissue versus other supplies and services. Some of that tissue came from fetuses that were 17 weeks to 22 weeks gestation. Many recent anti-abortion efforts are focused on prohibiting most abortions after 20 weeks.
The Food and Drug Administration has also paid about $73,000 to the company since 2009, federal health officials say, mostly for liver and thymus tissue that are used largely to develop a human-like immune system in mice that can be used to test new drug therapies without endangering people. Advanced Bioscience Resources is the main paid provider of fetal tissue to the federal government, officials said.
“Voluntary donation of tissue for research has helped understand, treat and cure a number of conditions and diseases that affect millions of Americans, and it has enjoyed bipartisan support and the support of leading scientists and disease groups,” Health and Human Services spokesman Kevin Griffis said in a statement. “We make clear to all our grantees and researchers the legal obligations they are under and we know of no violations of laws in connection with the research done at our agencies.”
Advanced Bioscience Resources did not return multiple requests for comment.
In one of the sting videos, Katharine Sheehan, identified in the film as former medical director of Planned Parenthood Pacific Southwest, mentions the company in passing.
“We have already a relationship with ABR,” she says to someone posing as a competitor to the company. “We’ve been using them for over 10 years — a really long time. … They’re doing the big collection for government-level collections.”
It is unclear how many sources of fetal tissue and organs are available to Advanced Bioscience Resources. The company primarily supplies fetal tissue, but it also provides federal researchers with associated services, such as blood tests of pregnant women’s immune systems.
The NIH, with a $30 billion budget for research nationwide, funded about $76 million in dozens of fetal tissue projects in 2014. That’s less than half the $166 million that it spent on human embryonic stem-cell research.
Most of that work is conducted at universities and research centers around the country, but six of the fetal tissue projects were conducted by government researchers at NIH.
“It’s a pretty tiny number of projects for NIH,” said New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan.
Four of the projects based in Bethesda focused on eye disease, including a potential treatment for one of the leading causes of vision loss in the developed world, cystoid macular edema. Two are focused on HIV, including the development of a better mouse model for studying the virus. The studies were funded with $3.8 million.
In most cases, NIH researchers acquire fetal tissue through scientific collaborations with other research centers from repositories, but they do purchase some types of tissue from nonprofit vendors like Advanced Bioscience Resources.
According to one NIH fee schedule obtained by POLITICO, Advanced Bioscience Resources charged the government $340 for a 17-to-22-week human fetal thymus, $340 for a 17-to-22-week human fetal liver, $325 for a maternal blood test and $120 for Fed Ex overnight shipping.
In its 990 tax filings for 2013, Advanced Bioscience Resources says it “obtains and delivers fetal tissue to medical researchers who study the tissue for its application to the treatment of various illnesses and injuries.” It does not indicate that it does any other work besides obtaining and delivering the fetal tissue.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told Congress last week that the agency is ensuring that its grantees, some of which she said use fetal tissue, are adhering to the law.
HHS is ensuring that those grantees “assert and certify that they understand the laws and that they will abide by that,” she told the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Advanced Bioscience Resources has signed off on those longstanding agreements that prohibit profiteering, among other things.
The rules for funding research using fetal tissue haven’t changed for more than 20 years.
“They have been in place for a very long time under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” said Alta Charo, a bioethicist and law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It’s now a relatively niche area of medical research, partly replaced by work on embryonic stem cells, which come from the very earliest stages of conception, not aborted or miscarried fetuses.
Still, fetal tissue continues to have applications for researchers studying early human development and the pathology of infectious diseases. It’s used in the development of vaccines and treatments for a range of potentially lethal conditions, including HIV, dengue fever, flu, and hepatitis B and C. It’s also used by researchers who study early brain development and associated cognitive disorders, as well as Down syndrome and congenital heart defects, according to NIH.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan put a moratorium on funding some research using fetal tissue from abortions, even after a panel he appointed recommended allowing it. That ban was lifted five years later under President Bill Clinton. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama changed that, although both presidents put their stamp on policies for the federal funding of embryonic stem cells.
Congress placed certain restrictions on fetal tissue research in 1993, however. No one could benefit financially from the donated tissue, although abortion providers, for instance, could be reimbursed for additional expenses, such as storing and transporting it.
Also, the abortion must be performed according to what’s best for the patient, not what’s best for harvesting the tissue.
At the time, Republicans on Capitol Hill widely supported allowing fetal research.
In 2000, at the request of the late Sen. Arlen Specter, the Government Accountability Office reviewed how fetal tissue was acquired for federally funded research — about 103 projects in 1999 with $17 million in total funding. The review concluded the costs of acquiring the tissue were “generally low” and that nearly half of the researchers paid nothing. In 1999, the average “acquisition cost” of those who did pay was $80.
Obama tells Planned Parenthood God bless you, and says they are here to stay.
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