House panel on Planned Parenthood videos exceeds its scope

Usually the worst you can say about a Congressional committee is that its hearings provide a soapbox for grandstanding, with more testimony coming from committee members than the witnesses called to testify.

But the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, called last year to investigate allegations that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for medical research, now is issuing subpoenas to those involved in that research and demanding information that includes the names of researchers, lab technicians, graduate students and administrative personnel, potentially violating their privacy and putting their safety at risk.

The panel was a response to a series of surreptitiously recorded videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood illegally profiting from the sale of fetal tissue from abortions. The man behind the recordings, David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress, since then has come under investigation himself; he was indicted by a Houston grand jury earlier this year for using a fake driver’s license as part of his undercover ruse and an earlier request by email to Planned Parenthood to buy fetal tissue. Earlier this week, California’s Department of Justice raided Daleiden’s Orange County apartment, seizing a laptop and several hard drives that contained video from his attempted sting of Planned Parenthood.

What Daleiden’s videos appear to show largely depends on where one stands on the abortion debate, but Planned Parenthood defended its policy to pass on donations of fetal tissue from abortion patients for research, charging facilities only for the costs involved in delivering the tissue. That defense was backed by reviews in 20 states, including one by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, requested by state legislators, that cleared Planned Parenthood and failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing by the health care provider.

With the subpoenas issued to medical organizations, the select panel’s focus now appears to have shifted away from Planned Parenthood and is going beyond its stated scope of investigating how fetal tissue is procured for research.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, one of six Democrats appointed to the 14-member panel, has been critical of the committee’s work, even calling it the “Select Panel to Attack Women’s Health,” in press releases.

The subpoenas and document requests, DelBene has said, are meant to intimidate health care providers rather than gather facts.

The subpoenas also were recently criticized in a letter to the House panel by the presidents of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

“Many scientists and physicians are deeply concerned for their safety and that of their patients, colleagues and students in light of inflammatory statements and reports surround fetal tissue donation,” the letter says.

Republicans on the committee have not said why identifying researchers and others is necessary to the panel’s work. Nor have they suggested how, or if, they would protect privacy and safeguard sensitive information.

Such concerns for safety and privacy are not overstated, as demonstrated by two attacks that followed the release of the Planned Parenthood videos last year:

Pullman’s Planned Parenthood clinic was heavily damaged in an arson in September.

And in late November, Robert L. Dear Jr., stormed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three people and injuring nine. After his arrest, Dear reportedly said, “No more baby parts.” Then after he admitted his guilt in court, called himself “a warrior for the babies.”

If the panel has strayed beyond its original intent and cannot take seriously concerns for the safety and privacy of medical students and professionals, it should conclude its work and put away the soapbox.

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