Backed by key women's health and civil liberties groups, 178 House Democrats on Tuesday sent a letter to Republican Speaker Paul Ryan demanding he disband an anti-choice investigative panel that has been issuing subpoenas to abortion providers and medical researchers around the country.
The so-called "Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives" was created to look into fetal tissue research in the wake of last summer's video smear campaign by anti-abortion activists that purported to show Planned Parenthood officials admitting to selling fetal body parts. In January, a grand jury empaneled to investigate those charges indicted the anti-abortion activists for fraud instead.
"This is one more example of the anti-choice GOP's reckless disregard for safety of women and the priorities of most Americans."
—Ilyse Hogue, NARAL Pro-Choice America
Women's health and academic freedom advocates have long warned that the panel could have a chilling effect on both the provision of healthcare and university research.
But the panel's "pattern of reckless disregard" has only escalated, according to House Democrats, with Republican members sending 36 subpoenas to researchers and healthcare providers, including a physician who was recently identified by name.
"From the beginning, Chair Marsha Blackburn has used her unilateral subpoena power to intimidate scientific researchers, doctors, clinics, health care providers, universities, and other entities," reads the letter, which asks Ryan to respond in writing no later than June 6, 2016.
"On May 11, 2016, the majority reached a new low when it posted a press release identifying a doctor and his clinic by name," the letter continues. "The press release's hyperbolic rhetoric and misleading allegations pose a real danger to the doctor, the staff at the clinic, and the patients of the named clinic. These recent steps are completely outside the bounds of acceptable Congressional behavior. We disgrace ourselves by allowing this misconduct to continue."
Indeed, the signatories—who include Reps. Keith Ellison (Minn.), Donna Edwards (Md.), Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tx.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), and Maxine Waters (Calif.)—declare:
The most recent subpoenas are only the latest in a series of aggressive tactics that constitute a virtually unprecedented abuse of Congressional power, perhaps only matched by the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. To this day, the Panel still lacks credible evidence to support its case that any federal laws were broken. Yet the Chair and majority staff continue to harass individuals, researchers, clinics, and health care facilities, issuing a total of 36 subpoenas so far, often without reaching out to the subject of the subpoena to ask for voluntary compliance first or without giving subjects sufficient time to comply. Congress simply has no business “prosecuting” these unfounded allegations.
The danger posed by the Panel is real and serious. There is a long and undeniable history of violence against women's health care clinics, physicians, and patients. As recently as November 27, 2015, a gunman murdered three people and injured nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, repeating the “baby parts” rhetoric pushed by the very members of Congress leading this investigation. Despite this horrific event, the same inflammatory language has been used repeatedly during Panel hearings, in communications with the press, and in other documents. The majority has also refused to take necessary steps to protect the names and privacy of those subject to the investigation. Indeed, some names and targets have already been publicly disclosed. We are deeply disappointed by the majority’s decision to continue down this road despite these well-known risks.
In a statement on Tuesday, the ACLU expressed support for the Democrats' call.
"By issuing broad and baseless subpoenas," said Louise Melling, the ACLU's deputy legal director, "the Select Investigative Panel is not only wasting time and taxpayer money, but also violating the civil liberties of health care providers, medical researchers, and staff. This panel's actions are clearly meant to harass and intimidate healthcare providers to prevent them from providing constitutionally protected care women need."
And there are even more insidious goals in play, said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"By promoting falsehoods in order to close clinics, the Select Panel has been endangering women, students, researchers, and health care providers since it was formed," Hogue said in a statement on Tuesday. "House Democrats are right to call on Speaker Ryan to disband this committee and put a stop to its taxpayer-funded witch hunt."
The panel and its actions, she said, offer "one more example of the anti-choice GOP's reckless disregard for safety of women and the priorities of most Americans."