SAN DIEGO -- The University of California, San Diego, and one of its neuroscientists have become embroiled in a national debate over the legality and ethics of using human fetal tissue to study various diseases.
The controversy escalated last week when a House committee confirmed that it plans to issue 17 subpoenas to labs, medical supply companies and others to obtain the names of scientists, graduate students and technicians who work with such tissue.
The panel earlier requested similar information from leading universities across the country, including UC San Diego, which responded with materials that were heavily redacted. More recently, UC San Diego neuroscientist Larry Goldstein appeared before the committee and was questioned sharply when he testified about the nature of such research.
Academics and abortion-rights advocates said the subpoena threat is the latest form of intimidation that could halt groundbreaking research on Parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, hepatitis, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, the Zika virus and other serious afflictions. They fear that identifying fetal-tissue scientists and their assistants could endanger them if anti-abortion activists were to target their homes and offices.
Republicans on the panel and opponents of abortion said the congressional investigation is warranted to ensure that people aren't violating the law by making money from fetal tissue. The federal government bans profiting from the sale of human tissue or organs.
At the center of the dispute is the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which began scrutinizing the issue last year after the release of surreptitiously recorded videos suggesting that some Planned Parenthood officials tried to profit illegally from the sale of fetal tissue.
Twenty states have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing or decided not to pursue the matter. The video's makers were indicted in Texas. And on Thursday, Planned Parenthood affiliates in three states joined a federal lawsuit that the organization had filed in California against the videographers, alleging fraud, illegal recording, trespassing and invasion of privacy.
On the same day, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said the House investigation would continue. She is on the special committee and plans to represent her Republican colleagues on the panel in issuing the 17 subpoenas.
Like other opponents of abortion, she criticizes most fetal tissue research because of its association with abortion. But she said the panel is not focusing on morality.
"We are going to review the business practices of these procurement organizations and do some investigating of how they have constructed a for-profit business model from selling baby body parts," Blackburn said.
Democrats on the House panel, abortion rights advocates and academic leaders have characterized the investigation as unjustified intimidation against scientists trying to make advances against various diseases.