Abortion Rights Activists Condemn Congressional 'Witch Hunt' against Medical Researchers

Representative Marsha Blackburn, an anti-choice Republican from Tennessee, is heading the Congressional "Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives" and publicly demanding the names of medical researchers. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Abortion Rights Activists Condemn Congressional 'Witch Hunt' against Medical Researchers

'They’re threatening people's lives.'

An anti-abortion Congressional committee created to investigate medical research dependent on fetal tissue is planning to issue 17 subpoenas seeking names of "researchers, graduate students, laboratory technicians and administrative personnel" involved in such research, reported the New York Times on Thursday.

Women's health activists fear that publicly listing the names of these medical researchers could result in deaths such as those in 2015, when a gunman murdered three employees at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. The critics were swift to denounce the subpeonas.

"It's deplorable that Chair Blackburn is continuing her partisan, taxpayer-funded witch hunt with these subpoenas," said NARAL president Ilyse Hogue. "What the committee is doing is targeting students, researchers, and healthcare providers in a way that opens them up to violence and harassment."

"And in the months after the act of domestic terrorism at Planned Parenthood in Colorado," Hogue continued, "We can all agree that this is exact opposite of what members of Congress should be spending their time on. No one should have to fear for their safety when seeking health care or conducting vital research, but that's the position the GOP members of this committee have put these individuals in."

"It's one step further than McCarthyism, because McCarthy just threatened people's jobs," said representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, to the New York Times. "They're threatening people's lives."

The committee's demand for the names of researchers is completely unfounded, critics say.

"The long and frightening record of intimidation and violence directed against anyone potentially implicated in the abortion controversy, the congressional request seems both inappropriate and dangerous," Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. "Any legitimate concerns that have prompted this particular investigation may readily be addressed without disclosure of the names of individual researchers."

Inside Higher Ed described the disturbing background to the subpoenas:

Some of the universities that already have turned over documents as part of the investigation have blacked out names of individual researchers. Jacqueline Carr, a spokesperson for the University of California at San Diego, said names on her institution's responses, for example, were redacted "for the safety and security of the named individuals."

...But Blackburn and her committee colleagues still want the names--hence the subpoenas. They've been criticized by others in Congress for allegedly attempting to intimidate researchers out of this kind of work.

The committee, run by Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, is dubbed the "Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives" by its Republican founders. It was prompted by last year's release of a video by anti-abortion activists that purported to show Planned Parenthood officials admitting to selling fetal body parts--accusations which were entirely unfounded, according to the grand jury convened to investigate the charges, which indicted the anti-abortion activists for fraud instead.

In addition to spurring fears for researchers' lives, the New York Times noted that "the new subpoenas will only escalate a battle that some researchers fear could shut down studies seeking cures for Parkinson's disease, the Zika virus and other illnesses."

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