Planned Parenthood Allegations Turn On Squishy McConnell-Backed Law

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Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter
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Squishy wording of a 1993 Republican-backed law overturning a ban on government-funded fetal tissue research is at the heart of allegations against Planned Parenthood that have led to a Department of Justice investigation.

The Center for Medical Progress published a series of explosive videos in 2015 revealing Planned Parenthood was harvesting and distributing aborted baby parts for researchers, setting in motion multiple congressional investigations and prompted a number of states to defund the abortion giant. Republicans in Congress passed a bill to strip the nonprofit of federal funds, but were not able to overcome a veto from then-President Barack Obama.

The law at issue bans profit from the exchange of fetal tissue, but allows organizations to receive broadly defined “reasonable payments” that apparently make the ban meaningless in practice. Planned Parenthood denied violating the law, but announced the clinics would no longer harvest and distribute the parts of aborted babies following the CMP videos.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce,” the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993 reads.

But the law later clarifies: “The term ‘valuable consideration’ does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

The Center for Medical Progress has alleged Planned Parenthood is breaking this law by profiting from the sale of aborted fetal tissue, which the group says is backed up by the released footage, in which Planned Parenthood officials discuss the cost of procuring and distributing the tissue. (RELATED: See How The Research Sausage Is Made In Latest Planned Parenthood Video)

But Planned Parenthood maintains it charged legal fees and did not profit from the exchange.

The House and Senate opened investigations into Planned Parenthood, and the Department of Justice has requested documents from the Senate Judiciary Committee gathered in the course of its investigation. But it’s unclear what exactly anyone could find that would constitute a violation of the law.

“It appears to be legal, no matter how much you charge,” Arthur Caplan, the director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center told The New York Times. “It’s a very gray and musty area as to what you can charge.”

Planned Parenthood doctors discuss fees ranging from $30 to $75 per specimen in the videos, but the middlemen they provide tissue then turn around and charge sometimes thousands of dollars to the actual researchers working with the tissue.

StemExpress, one such middleman targeted in the videos, reportedly grew 1,316 percent in three years, making $2.2 million of revenue in 2013. Founder Cate Dyer told the Times it is expensive to isolate the exact cells researchers need, and the fees it charges are legal.

“These are hard processes, expensive processes that take millions of dollars of equipment,” Dyer told the Times. A vial of five million frozen fetal liver cells can cost more than $24,000.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 38 other Senate Republicans voted for the 1993 bill, which also overturned a temporary ban imposed by Ronald Reagan on government-funded studies of aborted fetal tissue. Sens. Richard Shelby, John McCain, Dan Coats, Chuck Grassley, Thad Cochran and Orrin Hatch were among the 39 Republicans who voted for the bill.

“The videos have raised important questions about whether Planned Parenthood has violated that law,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told The Daily Caller News Foundation in 2015, saying the law includes strong criminal penalties for violators. Stewart did not address what exactly would constitute an illegal profit under the law.

McConnell supported the failed effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

Editor’s note: A version of this story first ran in August, 2015. 

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