- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - House Democrats suggested on Wednesday that a special House panel investigating Planned Parenthood could be complicit in future assaults or even murders of abortion providers at the Republican-led committee’s first hearing on the ethics of fetal tissue research.

The investigative panel was created last year following conservative furor over secretly recorded videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing how they sometimes supply fetal tissue for medical research. In February, the panel subpoenaed documents from groups that GOP lawmakers said were withholding information. Those include abortion providers and a company that supplies fetal tissue from abortion clinics to researchers.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the panel’s chairman, said the subpoenas are necessary as part of the investigation to answer questions “that the American people are asking.” The subpoenas seek information on people involved in procuring tissue, where it came from and where it was sent.

“There is something going on, something that deserves investigating and that demands our best moral and ethical thinking,” Blackburn said at the hearing.

The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, repeated her call for the special committee to be disbanded and called the investigation a “partisan and dangerous witch hunt.” She also said there were no rules in place to protect the names of those subpoenaed.

“The chair’s abuse of her position as chair to compel this information is reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy’s abusive tactics,” Schakowsky said, referring to the Wisconsin senator’s anti-communism crusade in the 1950s.

Other Democrats echoed the concern that if the investigation reveals the names of people who work in fetal tissue research, they could be targeted by protesters. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the panel could be “complicit with physical assaults or murders of these people” and moved to quash the subpoenas. The Republican-led panel voted 8-6 against Nadler’s motion.

Republicans and conservatives have denounced the practice of fetal tissue research after abortion and some have accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling the organs for profit. They unsuccessfully tried to block the federal money that the women’s health organization receives in spending legislation last year.

Planned Parenthood has denied wrongdoing. Investigations by several congressional panels and states have not produced evidence that it acted illegally.

At the hearing, Republicans circulated emails from doctors and researchers seeking specific fetal tissue for research in graphic terms. Combative Democrats grilled witnesses who criticized fetal tissue research after abortion.

“We are a nation justly proud of the progress and achievements of our biomedical research, but lifesaving research cannot and should not require the destruction of life for it to go forward,” said G. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University.

A witness supporting the research - law and ethics professor Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin - said it is important for developing vaccines and research on disease, including Ebola, HIV, Alzheimer’s and even Zika, a spreading virus with links to a spike in babies born with abnormally small heads in Brazil.

Charo said cutting off the research could result in more abortions if women are unsure whether the Zika virus is affecting their unborn babies.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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