Washington - Republican US congressional leaders on Wednesday launched an investigation of Planned Parenthood after a video implying it sells the organs of aborted foetuses was released on the Internet. The reproductive health group said the video is false.
The secretly recorded video shows Dr Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, discussing harvesting body parts from aborted foetuses with actors posing as buyers from a biological company. The conversation took place over lunch and wine in a restaurant.
The Centre for Medical Progress, the California-based anti-abortion group that released the video on Tuesday, said it was evidence that Planned Parenthood was involved in the illegal sale of aborted foetuses and conducting illegal partial-birth abortions.
The non-profit organisation has flatly denied the accusations, saying neither it nor patients profited from the distribution of foetal tissue for lifesaving scientific research.
In Washington, House Speaker John Boehner said he had asked the appropriate congressional committees to look into "the grisly practices embraced by Planned Parenthood."
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"When an organisation monetises an unborn child, and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video we must all act," the Ohio Republican said in a statement.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee said it would investigate whether foetal body parts were illegally sold for profit.
In Louisiana and Texas, the Republican governors of those states also ordered investigations.
Planned Parenthood said in a statement that it has followed legal and ethical guidelines that allow women to consent to donating foetal tissue for scientific research with no financial gain to the individual or organisation.
"These outrageous claims are flat-out untrue, but that doesn't matter to politicians with a longstanding political agenda to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood," spokesperson Eric Ferrero said in the statement.
The organisation characterised the video as the work of anti-abortion activists out to harm its reputation.
The outcry from leaders in the Republican-dominated Congress, as well as from several Republican presidential candidates, appeared to have little impact on Planned Parenthood's standing with some key supporters.
The "verbiage could have been different, but you don't judge an organization by the words of one employee," Texas attorney Steve Mostyn said in a telephone interview. Mostyn estimated that he and his wife gave more than $1m to Planned Parenthood's efforts last year.
Legal to obtain
The video has reignited the controversy about medical research using human foetal tissue, which experts said was in high demand in the 1990s. Since then, that supply of research material has fallen sharply, replaced largely by cells from embryos, adult stem cells and other sources.
"It's legal to obtain foetal tissue. You are not supposed to sell it. You can certainly make it available," said Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Centre’s Department of Population Health.
He said a few companies now collect the tissue, and "they charge a lot for it."
"I'm not sure people who donate it realise that," he added.
Under federal law, selling human foetal tissue across state lines is punishable by fines of up to $500 000 and a prison sentence of up to 10 years. However, the law allows "reasonable payments" for costs such as transportation and storage.
Planned Parenthood said it followed applicable laws and ethical standards in helping women who wish to donate foetal tissue for research purposes.
When the video was released on Tuesday, Planned Parenthood explained that costs such as transportation to research centres are reimbursed in some cases, calling it standard medical practice.
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At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research using human foetal tissue is done "under its general legal authorities to conduct biomedical research to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability," the agency said in a statement.
The NIH defines such tissue as coming from a dead embryo or foetus following a stillbirth, or a spontaneous or induced abortion.
The NIH last year funded $76m in medical research involving the use of human foetal tissue that spanned a range of topics.
In one example, Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard University, and other institutions investigated antibodies that can neutralise the HIV virus that causes Aids.
At Stanford University in California, human foetal tissue was used in efforts to make more effective chicken pox and shingles vaccines. Researchers at the University of California at Davis sought to understand the foetal development of the human visual system.
"The need for tissue is not great," said NYU's Caplan, saying Planned Parenthood might not want to be involved in the field at all.
"It's too controversial."