The House of Representatives is on an official witch hunt against science. A special committee, tasked with investigating U.S. fetal tissue research, is about to issue 17 subpoenas to individuals involved in the field. The goal, on paper, is to find out where researchers are getting the tissue.
But what Congress really wants are names: These members of the science community — and the government funding they need to continue its work — are directly under threat. Finding them will be easy. Protecting them will not.
Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn is leading the GOP half of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives. Blackburn is notoriously anti-abortion and anti-science. As Chair of the committee, she’s leading the inquiries into the controversy that started last year, when the curiously named Center for Medical Progress — an anti-abortion organization — released the now-infamous Planned Parenthood sting videos, which attempted to suggest that the organization was trafficking aborted fetuses to researchers for profit, an act that is illegal under federal law. While several state investigations have put the controversy to rest — Planned Parenthood, it was confirmed, only ever donated fetal tissue — Blackburn has been relentless in her hunt for the individuals her committee has labeled as perpetrators.
The names of these researchers, whose work with fetal tissue is crucial to developing treatments for vaccines as varied as cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, are proudly displayed across the headers of every article they’ve ever published and every poster they’ve ever presented. A comprehensive list of their names is only a Google Scholar or PubMed search away.
Scientists aren’t — and shouldn’t have to be — afraid to pursue their work. That spirit of openness is the foundation that the scientific community is built on; without it, collaboration — and progress — would be impossible. But Blackburn’s intimidation tactics are forcing scientists to hide.
It’s already happening at the University of California, San Diego. University officials blacked out the names of scientists involved in fetal tissue research when the Committee first demanded information last year, forestalling the investigation’s progress. Other schools and research institutions attempted to do the same. The Committee was unamused — hence, the subpoenas.
If singled out, individuals involved with fetal tissue research — which doesn’t just include scientists; graduate students, laboratory technicians, and administrative staff are all under the Committee’s watchful eye — aren’t just threatened with having their jobs or crucial funding pulled away. The Planned Parenthood controversy has stirred up extreme — and deadly — emotions; Robert Lewis Dear, declaring himself a “warrior for the babies,” killed three people in last year’s horrific attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.
Democrats on the special House committee have tried pushing back. Earlier this year, they accused the panel’s Republican majority of issuing “overbroad document requests” a healthcare provider had been demanded to disclose the names of medical students and other healthcare providers participating in abortion-related activities — that threatened not only the privacy and security of those individuals but also their lives. As the Democrats wrote in their letter:
Since abortion became legal in this country, doctors and patients have been murdered, clinics have been vandalized, and ongoing threats have put doctors, scientists, and their families in fear for their safety. No body of Congress should target individuals or organizations as possible subjects of investigation — and demand information that has grave privacy and security implications — without a legitimate basis for doing so.
That was in January. Blackburn’s witch hunt has only intensified since then, with her fellow Republican panelists now resorting to intimidation tactics to get the information they need. While it helps to have scientists, like those that published a defense of fetal tissue research in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, standing fearlessly by their work — “We have a duty to use fetal tissue for research and therapy,” they declared — the fact that their peers have resorted to blacking out their names from their work is a clear sign that Blackburn has already gone too far. Unlike bigotry and ignorance, science cannot thrive in a culture of fear.