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Setting the record straight on the history of fetal tissue research

The seventh Planned Parenthood video has just come out, and it reveals a story in which a technician taps a baby's heart to get it to start beating again, then casually tells another employee to cut through the baby's face to harvest the brain for researchers.

I want to commend the relatively new publication The Stream for its relentless coverage of the horrors coming out in the Planned Parenthood videos.

This article does the important service of calling attention to the issue of fetal tissue research funding, an issue which has been woefully neglected in the entire discussion. I swear, if I knew someone with the ear of the most vocal senators on this--Cruz and Paul--I would be asking for an audience so that I could remind those two gentlemen not just to try to defund Planned Parenthood but to defund aborted fetal tissue research. Let me emphasize again, as I have before, that this is not merely about defunding Planned Parenthood. It is about defunding the "demand side" of the equation--the NIH funding for researchers who purchase the baby bodies and parts not only from Planned Parenthood but also from non-PP hospitals and clinics.

One problem with this particular Stream article, however, is that it is somewhat incorrect on the politics of the early 21st century, and the way in which it is incorrect lets Republicans and even pro-life leaders off the hook in the sorry history of how we got to 2015 with an unbroken record since 1993 of federal funding for cannibalistic research using the bodies of murdered infants.

The article in The Stream rightly reminds the readers that Life Dynamics and (of all things) 20/20 exposed way back in 2000 the very same wicked practices that we are all talking about today--the sale of the bodies of aborted children for research. The article then goes on to detail what was done in the year 2000 to try to stop it--calls for hearings and more detailed reporting requirements, mostly unsuccessful except for a few additional regulations. It does not appear that anyone thought that anything as radical as outright cutting off federal funding for such research was possible in 2000.

But it's important to remember that, although the Life Dynamics and 20/20 reports came out in late 1999 and early 2000, William Jefferson Clinton was still President at that time. Hence, although the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, Clinton would almost certainly have vetoed any legislation removing federal funding from fetal tissue research.

In January, 2001, things changed both for the better and for the worse. After the long "hanging chad" fiasco, George W. Bush was sworn in as President. The new, 107th Congress, however, was less Republican controlled (oddly enough), with the Senate on a knife edge.

Before I go further in my history of the U.S. Congress in the early Bush II years, let me quote the part I disagree with from The Stream article:

Congress was trying to make the practice illegal, he said, but “the problem is the utilization of that tissue is rationalized for a better purpose,” which meant there were financial and political incentives to preserve the market in fetal remains.

Further, he continued, there is a limit to what Congress can do. The laws that let abortionists traffic in fetal parts “are executive branch decisions and bureaucratic rulings. Congress could reverse them if Congress wanted to do it. But it requires a large, overwhelming vote.” That kind of majority is almost impossible to get, he said.

Actually, no. There is nothing in principle about making federal funding illegal for aborted fetal tissue research that "requires a large, overwhelming vote." Why should there be? It's a little difficult to know what this beltway insider (the anonymous source for the article) has in mind here, and he gives no details as to why he thinks a super-majority is required for bills affecting research funding or in other ways related to aborted fetal tissue research.

Granted, the Senate was sufficiently dicey in the early Bush years that one might argue that legislation unpopular with Democrats would not have passed. Indeed, once Jim Jeffords left the Republican party and caucused with the Democrats in May of 2001, the Republicans lost their brief control of the Senate altogether until the entry of the 108th congress in 2003. But from 2003 to 2007 the Republicans had a sizable majority in the House and a majority (if not a hefty one) in the Senate.

At this point we come to the whole issue of filibusters, cloture, and the "nuclear option." If the Democrats had doubled down on protecting funding for aborted fetal tissue research in the Senate in 2003 (say), they would presumably have filibustered any law that reversed the 1993 Clinton-era law and stopped that funding. As with Bush judicial and other appointees, that brings us directly to the question of Republican unwillingness to use the so-called "nuclear option" to break through Democratic opposition and the sorry tale of the Gang of 14.

But stop a moment: This is all hypothetical, isn't it? Those of us who were politically aware during those years did hear about filibusters and did talk over dinner about the nuclear option, but never, never apropos of fetal tissue research, right? Why not? That issue just quietly dropped off the screen. Nobody was going to bat for it after Bush's election. Nobody went to bat for it after Senate control returned to the Republicans in 2003. Nobody did anything then. The efforts back in 2000 were prior to Bush's election.

So even if we talk about the difficulties of getting Democrat-hated legislation past a filibuster in the Senate, we have to recognize that that was the fate of anything the Democrats didn't like during those years, and that conservatives and Republicans didn't therefore state that a "large, overwhelming vote" was required for all unpopular legislation and hence give up on everything. Instead, we chafed under the Democratic hardball use of the filibuster and talked about how to get past it. And we did that for things that were on the radar (like, e.g., judicial appointments). Any legislation to stop fetal tissue research funding wouldn't have been any worse off than any other legislation the Democrats didn't like. It wouldn't have especially required a "large, overwhelming majority."

So why wasn't anybody trying? Why wasn't it even on the radar when we had a pro-life President and when, for four years, we had a Republican-controlled Congress?

And here's where the sad truth emerges. The problem wasn't that there is something about stopping fetal tissue trafficking that inherently requires a "large, overwhelming majority." The problem was that pro-lifers and conservatives had very deliberately stopped caring, and that that included the President and a leading, national pro-life organization.

As I've discussed before, in 2002 it turned out that the Bush NIH had indeed funded aborted fetal tissue research. This was right when the "hot button" issue was funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and Bush was trying hard to hold the line on that. Many were shocked to learn that the rules for federal funding of research using aborted fetuses were actually more lax than those for funding research using embryos destroyed pre-implantation. But so it was. So there was a small, little outcry, which might have resulted in something's being done in the new Congress in 2003, and guess what? "We," by which I mean the pro-life establishment, decided to do nothing.

I have discussed this before, but I want to emphasize it again, because I think it is important to understand how we got here if we're going to use this opportunity to go back and fix it. Here is what happened in 2002: The Bush administration said that its "hands were tied" by the 1993 Clinton-era law requiring that the NIH be willing to fund aborted fetal tissue research. The obvious question, however, was why the Bush administration didn't start using the bully pulpit and why pro-life legislators didn't start mustering resources to try to change that 1993 law. That might well have been possible with the new Congress in 2003. The question was so obvious and the passivity of the Bush administration so strange that Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life made up, on behalf of Bush, an excuse for doing nothing:

"We shouldn't have a set of guidelines that treat embryos and fetuses differently, especially when they give more protections to embryos than fetuses," said John F. Kilner, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.

Explaining the discrepancy between the two policies, a White House spokesman told the Chicago Tribune that Bush left the Clinton-era fetal guidelines in place because of a 1993 law prohibiting presidents from banning fetal tissue research. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, told Christianity Today that the Bush administration's hands are tied on fetal research. However, he said the administration is rightly focusing its attention on other life ethics battles. "We could open our papers any day and read that human embryo farms have opened for business," Johnson said. "Because the Senate has failed to pass the ban on human cloning, we face an imminent danger. So that is where the administration, the White House, and the President are putting their focus. Facilities could start up any day that will be in the business of manufacturing members of the human species for the purpose of harvesting their parts. Fetal tissue is bad, but we are talking now about a whole quantum leap." [emphasis added]

Thirteen years later, Johnson's and Bush's short-sightedness is evident, as fetal tissue research is an on-going horror that didn't even stop for a brief moment during a Republican presidency. Nor, even under Barack Obama, do we have, for what it's worth, embryo farms yet in the sense that I think Johnson means, though we do have embryos created and murdered for research in vitro. Stopping the use of aborted fetuses was an urgent issue of Johnson's time, that was the time to do it, there was a window of opportunity, and he dropped the ball.

Why do I keep going on about this?

Because it might be about to happen again, that's why. Due to the wonderfully relentless work of CMP and due to the fact that the Internet is a much greater force now than in 2000, we now have information out there and (some) legislators riled up. But a) they are talking only about defunding Planned Parenthood and seem simply to be overlooking the need to defund aborted fetal tissue research and b) we probably have to wait to do anything effective until we have a Republican in the White House who won't veto the relevant legislation. That may happen in 2016, and if we have majorities in Congress, that would be another opportunity to do it--not just to defund Planned Parenthood but to defund the whole grisly business of purchasing the bodies of murdered infants for scientific research. But that opportunity could be missed again.

If you google "defund" with "fetal tissue research," the only hits you get (at least the only hits I'm getting) are from left-wing sites about the alleged hypocrisy of Republican lawmakers presently calling for defunding Planned Parenthood who voted in 1993 to fund fetal tissue research. Well, we can of course hope they are having a change of heart, right? What no one, even among the good guys, is talking about is reversing that 1993 law. I don't know why. Has it just not occurred to them? They should be planning now to do it, if not now, then if and when a Republican is elected in 2016. If this seems Quixotic, it is no more so than defunding Planned Parenthood, which Barack Obama will also veto for right now.

Pro-life groups need to call for this, but they are not doing so. Even NRLC, despite the disastrous outcome of their 2002 capitulation, has not said "mea culpa" and called for a reverse of the 1993 law.

Defunding Planned Parenthood is good, and should be done, but it is not enough. Here's something to understand: Planned Parenthood and the middlemen like Stem Express may be willing to skirt the law (and the videos make it clear that PP is blatantly breaking the law in a variety of ways) when scientific researchers are not. An outright ban on the use of federal funds for research involving tissue from aborted fetuses is sufficiently sweeping and straightforward that it will give many scientists pause. In fact, that is why we are going to hear a lot of outcry about it--because it would be effective. It would, if passed, especially in a Republican presidency, be far more effective than the unenforced legislation currently in place stating that, e.g., a woman must make the decision to abort independently of the decision to donate the baby's body. Like penalizing the "johns" who purchase prostitutes, putting penalties on the researchers who, in the end, purchase fetal tissue from the middlemen is a particularly effective way of cutting off this wicked trade in human flesh.

A true point made in the Stream article is that Planned Parenthood itself makes enough money on its own that it can survive without federal funding. That's useful to keep in mind, not because we should not defund Planned Parenthood, but because doing so needs to be just one prong in a multi-front attack on baby parts trafficking.

But we should not think that the best solution is simply to try to bring about "spiritual change," and this is where my greatest concern arises with the Stream article:

The problem, he emphasized several times, is moral and spiritual. “The very fact that we do these things and we consider them normal tells you where our culture is.” That culture determines what a legislature can do, and even if “pro-life legislation is passed, it can’t create the necessary spiritual change.”

I'm sorry, but in the very heat of these revelations, at the very moment when we finally have legislators talking about doing something effective, this is defeatist talk and misguided. Now is the time when legislators need to be planning for a possible Republican presidency, when pro-lifers need to be getting specific about the legislation they want passed, which should include both defunding Planned Parenthood and defunding aborted fetal tissue research, and when we need to be pushing for a Republican-controlled Congress with pro-lifers in key positions. This is the time for legislative work. The videos themselves are doing spiritual work for us already. (See here, for example.)

And let me add in passing that the impact of these videos is a refutation of the claim, which we've been hearing and to some degree heeding for twenty years or so, that pro-lifers need to tone down their message and be less logical and more touchy-feely or they aren't going to reach anybody effectively.

It is simply not true, unless there is a Democrat in the White House, that super-majorities are needed to pass legislation against fetal tissue trafficking. Such legislation is no different from any other legislation. To be sure, Democrats will fight tooth and nail, but that is often true of good legislation, and part of what good legislators do is prepare to fight back. That should go without saying.

With the head of steam generated by these videos, it should be possible to induce even a non-firebrand Republican President to sign the relevant legislation--certainly not to veto it. The grassroots is up in arms, the call has gone out. Let's make the opportunity, and then let's not miss the opportunity again.

Comments (12)

For the political record of the original bill I found these two links:
They show that while the House Republicans did largely oppose the bill, it was not the overwhelming consensus we have today. On the other hand the Senate Republicans did by a large majority support the bill.

The timeline of events was unfortunate, as I didn't become politically active until 2004 even though I've always been a partisan, so this was never on my radar screen.

Third, if this was on the radar screen of the pro-life movement why was it never brought up in a specific manner? Yes, it is true you opposed the practice as an abstract legal and moral issue, but not once in any previous debates do I recall any mention of a list of prices for specific organs, nor about changing the abortion procedure to acquire such tissue. I have a vague memory of someone, Dr. Beckwith maybe, who brought up organ harvesting and sale as a hypothetical in the abortion debate and I was thoroughly dismissive of his argument and nobody tried to correct me.

Step2, I unequivocally state that the Republican support in 1993 was shameful. I don't entirely know what was wrong with them. Perhaps they were just fools, which is by no means impossible.

It was brought up in a specific manner by Life Dynamics. My recollection is that they were dismissed as "extremists" and that there was some oddity where one of the people involved originally claimed to have been a woman when he was really a man or vice versa--something weird like that, and that was used in part to discredit the entire thing. The 20/20 report of course was harder to dismiss, as that was (shockingly enough) MSM. Life Dynamics _did_ emphasize specific prices for specific organs. I don't know if they happened to ask the question about changing the procedures to obtain the most useful organs. That may just not have been part of their particular sting.

In actual fact, as I discussed in great detail in an article back in 2008 (which I will link below), we pro-lifers _did_ discuss this in a specific manner and in that way got the Elder Bush administration to ban federal funding for the practice. In other words, not only did we discuss it in a specific way, but we made that the basis of effective political action and legislation. Right up through the year 2000, the official pro-life organs continued to discuss this with the obvious intent that, when they once more had political clout, they would once more ban funding for it. In fact, though I don't have the link right at my fingertips, they even had an article on the Life Dynamics and 20/20 revelations in 2000, again, obviously with the intention that this should influence policy. It was only after the election of Bush II that a deliberate decision was made to drop the issue, and most pro-lifers followed suit. After that, the Life Dynamics and 20/20 information was considered "old news," and what it has taken to bring the matter back to the public eye is this new, and much longer, set of undercover videos after the rise of the Twitterverse and the greater power of the Internet. Here is my 2008 article on the sorry history:


The Republican control of executive, legislative and judicial branches during the Bush years was a real eye opener to who the Republicans really are. Their disagreements with Democrats are symbolic at best (no one goes to jail or loses office).

Outstanding, Lydia. You've really been on fire lately.

What opportunity? I just don't see it. No one really seems to care about the PP debacle outside of people on the far right. At least, that's my impression from talking to folks, reading the news, the survey results, etc...

The MSM is doing its dead-level best to squelch this story, that is true. Nonetheless, not only are the videos out there but there are actually lawmakers talking about doing something. This is more opportunity than we have had in fifteen years, and we should make the most of it. As far as "nobody seems to care except for people on the far right," that's a pretty major exaggeration. Follow the link in my article where I said that the videos are doing spiritual work for us. It will take you to an obviously non-far-right columnist for the Daily Beast who says that he doesn't know if he's even pro-choice anymore because of the videos. Camille Paglia (not a member of the far right, in case you didn't know) cried shame on the MSM for trying to deep-six this story.

No one really seems to care about the PP debacle outside of people on the far right.

I suppose that's true if we're willing to define pretty much the entire conservative internet as "far right," which some people of course will do. NRO runs multiple blog posts and stories on this daily, and the conservative Twitter-verse is teeming with references to it. It's not a "far right" obsession unless, again, all politically aware conservatives can accurately be labeled in that way.

Well, a considerable portion of the left-media DOES define it that way: to them, "moderate right" means the liberal libertarians who are to the right of the uber-leftist socialists and proto-communists of academia and professional left victim-mongerers and protest agitators. Obama is "middle of the road" on that score.

Apparently some pro-death abortion supporters showed up to protest outside the Louisiana Governor's mansion and pro-life Governor Jindal shoved the PP videos down their throats. Bravo to him.


Trump's beautiful transformation of the Republican primary season has got me paying attention to politics again for the first time in 5 or 6 years. Kudos to Huckabee in an interview tonight for not taking the 'anchor baby' bait and reframing the discussion. Saying, essentially, that if these liberals are so offended by this term they should watch the PP videos or else shut the eff up. Who knew these Republican pols could be so brave?

Ahem: Did someone say, "No one seems to care about this except for people on the far right"?


Oh, I also guess all the state governors who have ended funding for PP must also be on the far right as well.

You make some excellent points, Lydia.

It does really appear that this might be an issue where we are on a role.

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