The New Mexico attorney general’s office received nearly 300 pages of documents from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) Thursday allegedly incriminating the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Southwestern Women’s Options, a prominent abortion clinic, in fetal tissue trafficking. Blackburn’s goal: Provoke a state-level criminal investigation into the dubious allegations.
As Blackburn prepared her latest call for outside reinforcements in the U.S. House of Representatives investigation’s thus far unsuccessful search for a market in “baby body parts,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) separately broke his silence on her tactics. Ryan said in a written letter he trusts Blackburn to conduct the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives “in a way that will focus on the facts and also protect the privacy of those involved.”
The extensive documentation sent to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) appears to replace provider and researcher names in some areas and redact them in others, honoring Blackburn’s pledge to keep such information confidential. Earlier this month, Blackburn failed to redact at least two dozen researchers’ names and contact information in publicly available documents that she sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of a request for a federal abortion inquiry.
“We can confirm the Office of the Attorney General has received a public referral and this matter is under review,” attorney general spokesperson James Hallinan said in an emailed statement to Rewire. “All complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General are fully reviewed and appropriate action is taken.”
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Blackburn’s criminal referral appeared to cut other corners, copying state Rep. Steve Pearce, rather than Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who represents Albuquerque—making UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options her constituents, not his.
Grisham’s spokesperson did not return requests for comment.
Blackburn alleged in the documents that the university and abortion clinic violated state and federal law. The university “aggressively engaged in expanding abortion” and in turn, received fetal tissue from the abortion provider, she said. Last year, Rewire reported that the UNM Health Sciences Center ended its decade-long relationship with Southwestern Women’s Options because the clinic didn’t perform an adequate volume of abortions to train residents and fellows, contrary to the victory anti-choice activists claimed at the time.
The university countered that Blackburn misinterpreted the New Mexico law, which does not preclude donating fetuses from elective abortions that occurred at the clinic. “Additionally, UNM has never paid for this tissue—it has been provided free to the University of New Mexico for medical research,” according to a statement from the UNM Health Sciences Center.
“For more than 40 years, Southwestern Women’s Options has provided high-quality care for New Mexico women,” said Southwestern Women’s Options spokesperson Heather Brewer in an email to Rewire. “We are committed to continuing to provide compassionate care to women in our community.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) condemned the panel’s course of action.
“This so-called ‘criminal referral’ is further evidence that this investigation is nothing more than a wholly partisan attack on law-abiding doctors and researchers,” she told Rewire in an email.
Republican leadership, to the contrary, indicated that just cause exists for the overall investigation.
Ryan gave his blessing in a written response to Schakowsky, who recently introduced a resolution to disband what she has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.” Rewire obtained Ryan’s letter late Thursday, shortly after Schakowsky’s select panel staff received it.
Ryan repeated several key Blackburn talking points to justify the panel’s continued work. He said documents at the panel’s April hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” indicated that some entities may have violated the federal ban on selling fetal tissue. Many of the documents, however, appear to have been dubiously sourced from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group that released widely discredited videos alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations. Democrats on the select panel have warned that Blackburn is relying on additional information from the anti-choice Protest ABQ, which is run by former Operation Rescue operatives.
For instance, Ryan referenced the panel’s discovery of “a website that allowed a researcher to order any baby part imaginable at a given gestation period and proceed to check out.”
“Such a practice clearly threatens the human dignity,” he said.
Among Blackburn’s evidence from the pricing hearing, Exhibit C3 purportedly shows such an order form—and it’s nearly identical to what was shown in the CMP videos. Blackburn again displayed the CMP-sourced order form as she delivered a conservative call to action against “baby body parts” in June at the faith-based Road to Majority conference.
Ryan also countered Schakowsky’s claim that the investigation is hurting the research community, despite what researchers, fearing for their safety, privacy, and job security, told Rewire in recent interviews.
Ryan said he lacked the power to disband the panel, though he would refuse to do so regardless of the circumstances. Among the reasons he won’t act: Under the informal “Hastert rule,” named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), currently imprisoned after pleading guilty to charges related to sexually abusing minors, a majority of the majority must agree to vote on a bill. Ryan’s pledge to abide by the Hastert rule helped him win over the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, which would certainly stymie any attempt to end the investigation, along with more moderate House Republicans who almost unilaterally oppose abortion as well.
Schakowsky criticized Ryan’s response.
“I am disappointed that the Speaker has chosen to parrot Republican talking points on the investigation instead of addressing our concerns in a meaningful way,” Schakowsky said in an email to Rewire. “While there is no evidence of wrongdoing by researchers or doctors, we have concrete proof of the chilling effect on life-saving research. This McCarthy-like witch hunt is putting lives and livelihoods at risk. The Speaker has the ability to shut down this dangerous Panel and he should do so at once.”