shows the ultrasound of a fetus, it's the kind of picture you'd see taken for a pregnant woman, or someone who's looking for an abortion
Image courtesy: Andrew Malone, Flickr creative commons

A late-session surprise bill would ban the sale, or even donation, of fetal tissue, except in the case of miscarriage.

By Rose Hoban

A bill to ban the sale of fetal tissue in North Carolina emerged from a Senate committee Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers scrambled to wrap up work by next Tuesday.

In its original draft, the bill pertained to the administration of child-support payments. But that language was swapped out and replaced with new sections that call for no longer allowing women to donate fetal tissue after having an abortion.

Planned Parenthood Logo
Videos emerged this summer that claim to show national Planned Parenthood employees negotiating the sale of fetal body parts, but officials from the organization claim the videos are doctored.

If the bill should pass, a woman would only be allowed to donate if she’s had a miscarriage.

The bill also forbids any transfer of money around fetal tissue, which could affect the ability of medical scientists to even pay for the shipping or processing of donated tissue for their research.

The measure comes in response to much-publicized videos that purport to show employees of Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parts.

“These videos are utterly gruesome, they are callous and their content represents a very dark and depraved part of our culture that many Americans didn’t know existed,” said bill sponsor Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Raleigh). “I certainly didn’t.”

Planned Parenthood officials argue the videos were highly edited attacks that misrepresent the organization’s legally sanctioned recouping of costs for processing fetal tissue for research. Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue, which can only be donated, but allows for someone who collects the tissue to charge “reasonable payments associated with the removal, transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, and storage.”

A federal judge has ordered the organization that took the videos, the Center for Medical Progress, to turn over unedited copies of the tapes in a suit that’s been filed against them by the National Abortion Federation.

Not done in N.C.

Sarah Eldred of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said the practice is limited to three Planned Parenthood clinics in two states and that no fetal tissue is collected in clinics in North Carolina.

headshot of Chad Barefoot
Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Raleigh)

“This bill is nothing more than another political attack on safe and legal abortion in North Carolina being pushed by the same politicians and extreme political groups that oppose a woman’s right to make deeply personal pregnancy decisions regardless of the circumstances,” Melissa Reed, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic wrote in an email.

UNC-Chapel Hill obstetrician/gynecologist Amy Bryant said very few women would have the opportunity to donate fetal tissue from a miscarriage, or, in medical terms, a spontaneous abortion.

“Usually, the fetus aborts spontaneously into the toilet, or as a woman bleeds,” Bryant said, noting that between 15 and 25 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage.

“Sometimes we do a procedure for someone who is in the midst of an inevitable abortion,” she said. “A woman comes into the hospital when they’re bleeding and the cervix is open. It’s called an incomplete or inevitable abortion.”

But she said that most often miscarriages happen at home.

“And they’re not thinking about donation in that situation, in my experience,” she said.

Bryant said that only once has she been involved in collecting tissue for research for a study. “It’s pretty widespread to use fetal tissue for research.”

Currently, fetal tissue is being used for research on, for example, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver diseases, and some researchers are looking to see if stem cells from fetal tissue can eventually be used to treat spinal cord injury.

Donation limitation

When asked after the meeting whether the measure could effectively shut down stem cell and fetal tissue research in North Carolina, Barefoot was unsure.

“This stops any type of harvesting of body parts of unborn children in North Carolina,” he said.

Barefoot was also unsure whether the language in the bill would limit or stop the ability of researchers to pay for shipping from another state of fetal tissue to be used for research.

“It specifically says that no person in the state of North Carolina shall transfer for any type of consideration whatsoever the body parts of an unborn child in the state,” he said.

He looked surprised when one questioner pointed out to him that most women miscarry away from facilities where tissue could be collected in a way that would preserve the fetus’ viability for research.

“I’m having our staff check our organ-donation statutes right now,” he said. “I’ll have to get back to you [on] whether you can donate through organ-donation statutes, whether you can donate fetal tissue.”

The language, which is broader than the federal language forbidding the selling of fetal tissue, also leaves unclear whether hospitals could collect and process any fetal tissue that might be collected from a woman having a miscarriage.

Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) agreed the language was unclear and said that was the result of the bill being drafted in haste. He was the only member of the committee who voted against the measure.

“It’s unfortunate when we have bills that don’t get an opportunity to get to be fully evaluated and discussed, and for public input to be allowed,” he said, noting he only received the bill for review at 11:30 Tuesday night. “The shortness of time to allow adequate public input and discussion … that troubles me, when it does have potential for far-reaching implications.”

McKissick said he understood the impulse behind limiting the harvesting of fetal tissue for commercial gain, but said he thought women should be able to donate the tissue after an abortion.

“To prohibit the use of that fetus for research purposes I think is inappropriate,” he said. “I think that’s a choice a mother should be able to make.”

The bill now advances to the Senate floor for a vote.

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