Planned Parenthood Controversy Raises Questions About Fetal Tissue Research

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A series of sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood is raising questions about the field of fetal tissue research. Companies who buy and sell such tissue defend their work.

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A federal judge in California has temporarily banned the release of anymore videos featuring members of an abortion-provider group. The National Abortion Federation had sued, saying a series of sting videos by anti-abortion activists had placed its members in danger. The anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress has used the videos to accuse Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue. The U.S. Senate plans to vote next week on a bill to cut off funds for Planned Parenthood which denies it did anything illegal. This has all created a new focus on fetal tissue research. NPR’s Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The anti-abortion activists who made the videos pose as insiders. In this clip, one pretends to be a broker looking to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood and then sell it to researchers.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I don't want to sound like a salesman here, but I'm going to. So we return a portion of our fees to the clinics.

LUDDEN: The highly edited videos give an impression of cutthroat competition over big-time profit.

LINDA TRACY: I cringe every time I hear the words sell or buy when it comes to human tissue of any kind.

LUDDEN: Linda Tracy is a real insider. She heads Advanced Bioscience Resources, a nonprofit in Northern California. In 2013, public records show the organization had net income of just over a million dollars.

TRACY: I began ABR as an altruistic endeavor because I believe in the research. And I have striven to keep the cost to the researchers as low as possible and still maintain my business.

LUDDEN: She says ABR procures fetal tissue from hospitals and clinics that perform abortions, paying $30 to $100 a specimen. By law, that amount is meant to only cover costs. ABR isolate cells for researchers who are working on everything from HIV and AIDS to cancer, diabetes and more. She says researchers then typically pay between $340 and $550 for the material. Again, Tracy says her fees only cover costs which can be considerable.

TRACY: Any processing required, preservation, quality control, supplies, equipment.

LUDDEN: But not all middlemen are nonprofit. A sting video released this week features a former employee of the company Stem Express. Holly O'Donnell disparages her ex-boss.

O'DONNELL: The owner, Cate Dyer - she used to be a procurement tech, and then she went and started her own business. And now she's making a lot of money.

LUDDEN: Dyer declined to speak. A crisis communications consultant hired by the company says Stem Express nets about $2.2 million a year, but with 37 employees, he says, you do the math. The federal law regulating fetal tissue research dates to 1993. It's not clear how much research today is still bound by it.

ALTA CHARO: Technically, this only applies to research that's been financed by NIH.

LUDDEN: Alta Charo teaches law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin. She says the National Institutes of Health funds about $70 million a year in such research, but there's much more than that.

CHARO: For example, there are some states that finance research. There are private foundations and patient groups that finance research. And technically, they are not required to follow these rules, but in practice, they do.

LUDDEN: Including, she says, Planned Parenthood when it provides companies with tissue from aborted fetuses. The organizations we spoke with - ABR and Stem Express - also say they're monitored by the FDA, outside review boards and auditors. Still, some question how much oversight there is. Robert Klitzman of Columbia University thinks it's good that Congress is looking into the field.

ROBERT KLITZMAN: As science has advanced, up come all these opportunities for making money, and people are quick to step in. And it's important to think about what the ethical issues are.

LUDDEN: Planned Parenthood itself is calling for a blue-ribbon commission on fetal tissue research. It would not be the first. Legal scholar Charo says a series of commissions starting in the 1970s have weighed the ethical concerns of fetal tissue research. All, she says, have found the potential benefits are worth it. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.