Last week at a congressional hearing entitled “Bioethics and Fetal Tissue” before the Select Investigatory Panel on Infant Lives, I had a front-row view of a congressional hearing that quickly came off the rails. I should explain that as the Director of the Coalition for the Life Sciences, an umbrella organization of biomedical research societies and institutions of which ASCB is a leading member, I am a science policy veteran who has seen many hearings on Capitol Hill. Still, I was taken aback by how quickly the hearing dissolved from a fact-finding session on the use of fetal tissue in scientific research into a partisan brawl over reproductive politics. I know that everything on the Hill is partisan. I expected this hearing to be no exception. Yet I was still shocked at how quickly the pro-life Republican members on the panel dismissed out of hand the legal, ethical, and, yes, moral use of fetal tissue in research. Instead, they wanted only to use fetal tissue research as another target for anti-abortion rhetoric.
As mentioned in Tommy Mattocks’ article on the hearing, Larry Goldstein of the University of California, San Diego, was the only witness of the six who is an actual cell biologist. Goldstein is no stranger to testifying on divisive issues, having testified repeatedly during the congressional debates on embryonic stem cell research. Yet Goldstein faced some of the harshest questioning he’s ever received as an expert panelist. For example, Rep. Dian Black (R-TN), a member on the panel, asked all the witnesses if abortion clinics should be required to maintain a neonatal care unit in their facilities. Goldstein demurred, stating that he was not an expert on proper equipment for any clinical facility. It was clearly inappropriate for an expert witness to speculate outside his areas of expertise. Black would have none of it. She pushed on, badgering Goldstein to answer her question: “Do you think it is wrong to let a child die who is born in an abortion clinic and needs medical assistance?” Goldstein took a deep breath. “I think it is wrong to let a child die,” he said.
The Democratic members on the panel quickly came to Goldstein’s defense. As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) put it, “I feel like I’m a time traveler to the Salem Witch Trials. Unfortunately, this time, those being burned at the stake are our scientists, who hold future medical breakthroughs in their hands. They are joined by brave women’s healthcare workers who are simply trying to care for their patients.” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said that the direction and the tone of the investigation reminded her of Senator Joe McCarthy’s abusive investigative tactics.
But as I listened to Goldstein’s testimony on the real scientific questions that could only be answered by close study of stem cells of all types, including fetal stem cells, it became clear to me that there was nothing to investigate here. Fetal tissue research has been legal and closely controlled in the United States for decades. Moreover, it has resulted in great medical breakthroughs. Banning fetal tissue research won’t have any impact at all on whether women choose to have abortions. Instead, all the Select Panel was doing was throwing up a fog of fear to intimidate the scientists who legally work with fetal tissue/cells within the scope of their research. The Republican committee members are requesting documents, some through subpoenas, that demand the names of researchers, grad students, technicians, and medical personnel involved in the handling of fetal tissue. It is unconscionable that this committee publicizes these names and thereby puts researchers at risk of harassment and threats.
I left the Select Panel hearing seriously concerned about the chilling effect on research from such a witch hunt. After this sad spectacle, it is unclear what the Republican majority will do next. Is their ultimate goal legislation to defund fetal tissue research or to make it illegal? Is it just more “ends justify the means” politics on Capitol Hill where intimidating legitimate scientists is a new blood sport? I found myself in full agreement with Goldstein’s statement that Congress has better things to do with its time.
*An earlier version of this Article appeared in the ASCB Post