What Do Fetal Tissue and Climate Have in Common? Silencing of Science and Scientists

, senior analyst and program manager, Center for Science and Democracy | April 14, 2016, 2:01 pm EST
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Taking a page from the House Science Committee chairman’s harassment of NOAA scientists, the majority staff of a special ‘House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives’ recently issued more than a dozen subpoenas to medical organizations to turn in, among other documents, all communication and documents relating to any study involving any fetal tissue (emphasis added).

The creation and ironfisted approach of the Panel is another chapter in the ongoing saga spurred by the release last July of the secret and manipulated videos purportedly suggesting that Planned Parenthood profited from the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. The broad jurisdiction for the investigative panel, which includes “reviewing medical procedures and business practices used by entities involved in fetal tissue procurement, and any other matters with respect to fetal tissue procurement,” pushes beyond the inquest of abortion providers that the release of the videos initially prompted. And although the explicit purpose of the Panel is to investigate “abortion practices and the handling of and policies regarding fetal tissue, its cost and procurement,” the implicit goal of such a widely-cast subpoena seems to be to chill intellectual freedom and eliminate all fetal tissue research.

The long road to targeting disagreeable scientific research

The Panel has thus far issued two rounds of subpoenas, the first on February 16 and the second on March 30. The subpoenas ask health care providers, academic institutions, and medical schools to turn over the names of doctors, medical and graduate students, laboratory technicians, clinical and administrative personnel that are involved with fetal tissue research. Yes, you read it right, the names of researchers, medical and graduate students. Note that there is no evidence to suggest that any of these people or institution have anything to do with unlawful procurement of fetal tissue, but they are being targeted anyway.

The subpoenas followed the more than 40 letters requesting documents that the majority staff of the Panel had already sent out since its formation. And while many of the institutions were cooperating with the voluntary document requests, redacting names for privacy concerns, this apparently did not satisfy the Panel; Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn issued subpoenas for all information, unredacted. Plus, the Panel’s website hosts a form (below) inviting anyone to submit their names if they are “working for an abortion clinic, in the fetal tissue industry, doing biotech research, or have information you believe would be pertinent to our investigation,” essentially opening the door for any number of malicious submissions, given that the issue is so emotionally charged. A hearing was held by the Panel last month, with depositions with researchers and others are being scheduled for another one in the near future.

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Threatening the scientific process

Many in the medical and scientific community have articulated clearly and directly for the Panel the value of lawfully obtained fetal-tissue-derived cells and why they are crucial for medical discoveries and disease treatments, including as far back as half a century ago for polio and chicken pox to more recent examples of use for Parkinson’s, Ebola and Zika virus.

I want to speak to the risks such an investigation poses to science and the scientific process, because unlike some of our Congressional leaders, who have argued that research involving tissue legally obtained from aborted fetuses is scientifically unnecessary, I believe this determination is best left to biomedical researchers.

The Center for Science and Democracy has noted in the past the administrative burdens and chilling effect such broad interrogations can have on scientists and their institutions, most recently in the case of the NOAA investigation by Chairman Smith. We strongly support transparency and availability of scientific data, methodology, and published research papers, but disapprove agenda-driven disclosure requests and subpoenas. We continue to urge institutional clarity on procedures and policies to respond to suspect information requests.

The fetal tissue research subpoena, demanding the names of anyone remotely involved in the research not only in the procurement of the tissue, is a direct attack on the scientific enterprise; it interferes with the ability of scientists to advance research on debilitating diseases, utilizing the most useful methodologies and research materials. There are already reports of the hospitals no longer accepting requests for fetal tissue from researchers for fear of further scrutiny and intimidation, and disruption of research in critical disease areas such as multiple sclerosis.

Jeopardizing the safety and wellbeing of scientists

While the Congressional use of subpoena power to intimidate fetal tissue researchers has strong parallels with NOAA’s climate scientists, the former are exposed to potentially more vicious attacks. The subpoenas from the Panel come without an adequate and explicit plan for the privacy and confidentiality of the researchers and doctors covered under in the subpoenas. Any sloppiness in maintaining the privacy of the unredacted documents received by the Panel could very well endanger the lives of the medical staff and scientists working at the frontiers of cutting-edge research and their affiliate institutions. And given that anything even remotely related to a fetus has the ability to incite hateful attacks (verbal and physical), it’s no surprise that individuals researchers and doctors would be unwilling to speak up against such intrusive investigations. Researchers are also worried about loss of funding for their research programs, as some states have already moved in this direction. There were documented claims of silencing of scientists in the aftermath of the Planned Parenthood video. The subpoenas would go further in casting a chilling effect.

We need grit and solidarity from the scientific community

The politicization of science is taking a dangerous, potentially violent turn. In the past weeks, I’ve had two key revelations on this issue: non-academic colleagues who are trying to stop this witch hunt are surprised by the lack of scientific community’s engagement; and in speaking with my academic, biomedical peers, there’s a complete lack of awareness that such an investigation is even underway. Well, I guess one explains the other, but it is time for scientists, university administrators, and scientific societies to speak up in defense of the privacy, independence, and safety of their fetal tissue researcher colleagues who are rightly terrified to publicly speak about it. A subpoena that extends to graduate students, such as the one issued by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, has the potential of dissuading a whole generation of early career scientists from entering controversial topics if they feel that they’d need to defend their science every time there’s a member of Congress who doesn’t deem their scientific methods appropriate or finds their results disagreeable. This is harassment. This hurts the scientific enterprise. This needs to stop.

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