An inspector general has agreed to probe how the government doles out money to study fetal tissue, Sen. Rand Paul announced Tuesday, in an investigation he said could pry into Planned Parenthood’s sale of parts of aborted fetuses for research purposes.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General confirmed the probe in a Dec. 4 letter to Mr. Paul, saying it will interview officials at HHS and particularly those at the National Institutes of Health, which awards most of the funding for human fetal tissue research. It will also probe whether the government is conducting adequate oversight of the research to make sure no one is breaking the law.
Pro-lifers scored a second Christmas-week victory against Planned Parenthood on Tuesday, breaking the abortion provider’s winning streak in federal courts against efforts by states to defund the organization.
U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that Utah has the authority to terminate a contract that dispensed federal funds to the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah. Planned Parenthood had recorded a string of court victories this year in its effort to stop elected officials in a half-dozen states from defunding local affiliates.
The federal probe and the state defunding battles come after a series of videos taken by the Center for Medical Progress showed Planned Parenthood officials haggling over the production of tissue from aborted fetuses and the price to be paid for it.
Fetal cells and parts can be sold, but not for a profit — only handling fees are legally allowed. Planned Parenthood officials say they did nothing wrong but have reversed policy to refuse all money for fetal parts, not even taking the permitted fees.
And they remain a target for Republicans who doubt their assertions.
“Planned Parenthood selling body parts of the unborn demonstrates that the organization deserves not one penny more of our taxpayer dollars, and I am confident this investigation will give further proof of that,” Mr. Paul said Tuesday.
Mr. Paul wants to know how much third parties paid to Planned Parenthood or similar entities for harvested tissue, how the prices were set and how NIH ensures that no one is profiting from the transfers.
He also would like to know how research groups certify their compliance with existing law.
For its part, Planned Parenthood welcomed the “timely” audit, saying it had been asking the NIH since July to create an independent panel to conduct its first examination of fetal tissue research standards since the Reagan administration.
“As we have made clear from the beginning, Planned Parenthood has never sold fetal tissue for profit,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“Instead, currently, we help women in two states who wish to do so donate tissue to this important medical research,” she said. “These false and baseless claims against Planned Parenthood have been made by a fringe group of anti-abortion activists with the express goal of trying to end access to safe and legal abortion in this country.”
The issue broke into the fore after activists at the Center for Medical Progress released a series of videos shot on hidden cameras that implied Planned Parenthood was harvesting fetuses’ organs and trying to negotiate prices for them.
In combative testimony to a House panel in September, Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards called the videos “edited” and an effort to “entrap” the organization. She said stripping her organization of federal funding would cut off access to birth control, cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
Republicans have been trying to end federal taxpayer funding for the organization, which runs to about $500 million a year. Democrats have defended the money and managed to keep it flowing so far.
But at least one state is prevailing over Planned Parenthood, as Judge Waddoups voided his temporary restraining order from October that had kept funds flowing to the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.
The ruling reinstates Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision in August to stop $275,000 in federal funding from coming to Utah and then the Planned Parenthood affiliate, revenue that was used for an afterschool sex education program, a network monitoring sexually transmitted diseases and STD testing.
“Indeed, these are the types of decisions that should be left to elected officials, and not managed by the courts,” Judge Waddoups said in his opinion.
In a statement, Mr. Herbert said he “appreciate[s] today’s court decision which recognizes my ability to make contract decisions on behalf of the state.”
He added that the state would continue to work with “local health departments, community health centers, non-profit clinics and others to ensure access” to nonabortion services that Planned Parenthood provides.
Helene Krasnoff, senior director for litigation and law with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told The Associated Press that the Utah ruling is “a bit of an outlier” given that judges in the other Planned Parenthood lawsuits this year have ruled in the organization’s favor.
Last month Alabama agreed to pay $51,000 in legal fees to Planned Parenthood Southeast to settle a lawsuit over Gov. Robert Bentley’s effort to cancel the state’s Medicaid contract. A federal judge had ruled that the move deprived patients of the provider of their choice, as required under the Medicaid Act.
The same argument prevailed in Arkansas and Louisiana after state officials canceled their contracts with local Planned Parenthood affiliates. In both states federal judges ordered the states to reinstate funding pending the outcome of lawsuits.
Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said in a statement that the judge’s order is “regrettable,” and that attorneys will consider “every possible way to continue the critical health care and education programs that are at risk.”
Another effort to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood will go to the House floor early next year as part of a budget bill to halt much of Obamacare. It is expected to pass Congress but to meet with a veto from President Obama.
The House also voted in October to set up a select committee to find out whether Planned Parenthood and similar abortion providers are following the law when harvesting fetal tissue for research.
Mr. Paul, who is seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination, said he had first asked HHS to conduct a review of Planned Parenthood, but said Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s response was “unacceptable,” so he and 34 other senators turned to the inspector general for an investigation.
Daniel R. Levinson, the HHS inspector general, promised a “responsive and timely” investigation.
“Our goal is to obtain information related to fetal tissue research grants, NIH’s monitoring procedures over third-party certifications and those related to the department’s internal fetal tissue research, and any known violations of federal requirements,” he wrote to Mr. Paul.
Meanwhile, the Center for Medical Progress is trying to fight off a lawsuit in federal court in California arguing that the group broke a contract when it videotaped a conference as part of its investigation. A judge has held up release of videos from that case, though the videos have been turned over to the investigative panel in Congress.