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Fetal Tissue Research Limited but Important, Lawmakers Told

Texas public university officials told lawmakers on Thursday that scientific research using human fetal tissue was limited in scope but crucial to medical advances.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, listened to testimony about how researchers use fetal tissue on April 28, 2016.

Texas public university officials told lawmakers on Thursday that scientific research using human fetal tissue was limited in scope but crucial to medical advances.

At a hearing to consider policies on how human fetal tissue can be used for scientific research, University of Texas System Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Raymond Greenberg said “very, very few” researchers used fetal tissue.

“While this research is a small part of our collective scientific enterprise, it is work that would be difficult or impossible to do in other ways,” he said.

It was the first hearing on the subject since a Harris County grand jury in January indicted two undercover videographers who circulated videos about how fetal tissue was procured at Planned Parenthood clinics.

The issue came under heavy scrutiny from Republican leaders in Texas last year after the videographers, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, accused Planned Parenthood of breaking a federal law that bans the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied the accusations, which were dismissed by a Houston grand jury. That grand jury instead chose to indict the videographers on charges of tampering with a governmental record.

Thursday’s hearing of the House State Affairs Committee, chaired by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, largely steered clear of that controversy. Planned Parenthood was not invited to testify.

Instead, university officials offered examples of medical advances that fetal tissue research could contribute to.

For example, research on the development of human lungs using fetal tissue is “critical" to developing ways to fight respiratory distress syndrome in newborns, Greenberg said.

“In some cases, the use of fetal tissue is the only viable approach to research on a particular question, since mature, adult tissues are unsuited to developmental processes,” he said.

Cook repeated for the committee that the research was limited in scope. “This is a small part of your research initiative,” he told Greenberg.

But Cook asked if there were ways to collect tissue that did not come from an electively aborted fetus.

“It causes me to wonder if maybe we shouldn’t be looking at the utilization of tissue from miscarriages as opposed to tissue from elective abortion,” he said.

Thursday’s hearing struck a markedly different tone than a July meeting of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on the same subject. That hearing became the venue for lawmakers to criticize Planned Parenthood and air their concerns about the videos.

The sale of fetal tissue is illegal. But if a patient consents, abortion clinics may donate fetal tissue for use in medical research. Federal law allows clinics to be reimbursed for costs “associated with the transportation, implantation, processing preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue” for research purposes.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and Planned Parenthood have been financial supports of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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