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Fetal Tissue Debate: Political Theater Or Bioethical Conundrum?

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Neurons, brain cells and structure. Fetal tissue research at UNM's Health Sciences Center has been used to test treatments that could help premature infants with brain development.

Bioethical questions around the use of fetal tissue in research have been central to a House panel’s investigation, but opponents say it’s all political theater aimed at restricting abortion. The debate is unfolding in New Mexico, as both an Albuquerque abortion clinic and researchers here respond to that panel’s queries.

Scientists at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center have been doing research on fetal tissue for two decades. The tissue is donated by women who had abortions at Southwestern Women’s Options – and both the researchers and the clinic staff say no money changes hands.

That matters because allegations surfaced late last year that Planned Parenthood profited from the sale of fetal tissue in violation of federal law. And that’s when momentum on this issue picked up.

Now, state investigations haven’t found evidence to back up the concerns, but a U.S. congressional committee is investigating.

Elisa Martinez is the executive director of the anti-abortion group New Mexico Alliance for Life. "Does the need to be able to provide these organs, to provide for these researchers, is that fueling the abortion industry?"

The abortion doctors and researchers shouldn’t work so closely, Martinez said, in order to prevent doctors from looking for certain organs for certain studies. "I think there’s a conflict of interest there that’s very alarming," she said. "These abortionists are going in with the intent to harvest organs, and you have someone waiting in the wings ready to freeze them down. I think it presents a variety of ethical concerns."

She also wonders whether women are getting all the information when they’re choosing to donate tissue from their abortions. And then there’s the public’s right to know. The Alliance For Life issuing UNM and accusing the Health Sciences Center of failing to provide documents requested under the state’s open records law. "Especially considering a lot of these studies are being funded through taxpayer dollars, through the National Institutes of Health," she said, "the public has a right to ask these questions.

UNMH and the clinic say they complied with the House panel’s request for thousands of documents, even before that request became a subpoena. But both the hospital and the clinic took issue with the committee’s demand for the names of all their personnel, citing safety concerns—especially for students who worked only a brief time.

The doctors at Southwestern Women’s Options were fine with turning over their names. And the clinic denies that they perform abortions with the intent to harvest organs. Dr. Carmen Landau says this fetal tissue morality debate is just a smokescreen. "We at Southwestern Women’s Options feel that this select investigative panel is specifically targeting our clinic."

They’ve already been a targeted by the anti-abortion movement, particularly after the clinic stepped in to provide abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy after the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. Sidewalk protesters carry gruesome signs out front most days. 

"I think it’s important for us all to recognize that this panel’s investigation is probably not really about fetal tissue donation," Landau said.

Landau suspects that the House committee’s true aim is to create legislation that will over-regulate abortion and force clinics to shut their doors. It’s happening in other states, she pointed out, like neighboring Texas, and that’s driving women to New Mexico for the procedure: our Department of Health says about one-fifth of the abortions performed here in 2014 were for patients from out of state

"When a woman makes a decision to have an abortion, it is so important that it be safe, that it be respectful and that it be compassionate, and accessible," Landau said.

And, she added, having the option to donate the fetal tissue so that other infants can thrive might offer some patients solace. "During a time, which might be really difficult for them, they can draw some comfort from knowing that their donation might contribute to research that would help someone else’s premature baby survive and be healthier."

The House panel is expected to expand the reach of its investigation to include medical supply companies and laboratories.  


See the second story in this series: A look at what research on fetal tissue means for the health of premature babies.

Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Con Alma Health Foundation

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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