For the Record

Accusation of Fetal Research 'Profiteering' Made and Retracted

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First published online:

Fetal research appears poised to make another of its recurrent appearances on the national policy agenda as a result of allegations by antiabortion activists of impropriety in how the business of fetal tissue transplantation research is conducted. Long part of scientific exploration, federally funded fetal research has been subject to stringent federal regulation since the 1970s. In the 1980s, scientists began experimenting with a new type of fetal research—implanting cells from aborted fetuses into individuals suffering from a range of dangerous conditions, including diabetes and Parkinson's disease. Legislation enacted in 1994 allows federal funding of this work in accordance with very strict federal regulation and oversight.

The current controversy stems from allegations of illegal profiteering made last year by a technician who was employed by an agency that collects tissue samples and supplies them to medical researchers but who also was acting as a paid informant for an antiabortion group. While permitting the recovery of reasonable costs, the 1994 legislation expressly prohibits anyone involved in fetal tissue transplantation research from making a profit from the enterprise. In March, an episode of the television magazine 20/20 focused on the allegations, as did a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Health and Environment the following day. The hearing, however, dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the technician, who was confronted with contradictory accounts of events he has given on different occasions. While he alleged serious abuses in a videotape made in conjunction with the antiabortion organization with which he had been cooperating, he denied those same allegations in an affidavit supplied in a lawsuit growing out of the controversy. He also was forced to admit that he has received at least $10,000 from the antiabortion organization. At the hearing, he retracted his videotaped allegations as not having been made under oath.

Following the severe blow dealt to opponents of fetal research at the hearings, Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK) quickly introduced a softened version of an amendment that had been proposed, and soundly defeated, last year. He modified last year's version to delete several onerous requirements targeted at abortion providers, such as mandated reporting of the specific medical procedures used and the gestational age of the fetus. The new version would require abortion providers to file disclosure statements specifying the agencies that obtained the fetal tissue, documenting that patients had given informed consent and listing any fees that had been paid. While unlikely to move as a freestanding bill, Rep. Coburn's provisions could surface as an amendment to pending appropriations legislation.