Image courtesy Andrew Malone, flickr creative commons
Image courtesy Andrew Malone, flickr creative commons

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A bill to place further restrictions on the activities of Planned Parenthood in North Carolina made its way quickly through the legislative process.

By Rose Hoban

A late-entry bill aimed at banning the practice of collecting fetal tissue after abortions is on its way to Gov. Pat McCrory Monday after a contentious and, at times, emotional debate in the North Carolina House of Representatives.

Retired administrative assistant Betty Jane Lazo, 84, of Raleigh was one of dozens of protesters who showed up at the General Assembly on Tuesday after the legislature passed the fetal tissue ban. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The bill, introduced only last week, would forbid tissue taken from aborted fetuses to be used for research. Both supporters and opponents acknowledge there is nowhere in the state that’s known to be performing the procedure.

The bill also includes language codifying a provision in the state budget that would disallow North Carolina’s Planned Parenthood affiliates from running two teen pregnancy-prevention programs, in Fayetteville and Wilmington.

The measure comes in the wake of disputed videos that seemingly show national Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue procurement and allegedly negotiating prices for the tissue.

Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue that might be used for research, allowing only for the “reasonable” cost of processing, storage and shipping.

Officials from the national Planned Parenthood office maintain the videos have been heavily edited and are misleading and local leaders have called them a “fraudulent attack.” The national organization is suing the Center for Medical Progress, the organization that produced the videos, in federal court, where a judge has issued restraining orders.

Emotions run high

In the House, bill sponsor Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy) was unmoved by Planned Parenthood’s claim of the videos being doctored, bluntly stating that the impetus for the bill was spurred by “Planned Parenthood selling body parts.”

But Democrats who argued against the bill said the Planned Parenthood videos were “trumped up and bogus.” They also noted no North Carolina clinics have been involved in the harvesting of fetal tissue, something done by only a handful of clinics in other states.

“If they don’t do it, it shouldn’t be a problem,” Stevens said.

“Beyond this, this bill prevents anyone from selling tissue or body parts from aborted fetuses,” she said.

At present, a woman having an abortion can choose to have tissue from the fetus’ remains donated for research. The bill would forbid that, only allowing for donations after miscarriage.

“Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue for profit and requires separation between researchers and the woman who donates fetal tissue,” retorted Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Charlotte), who is a nurse.

“Fetal tissue cell research has been an ethical issue for health care professionals, scientists, politicians and religious people for years, although fetal tissue research has led to medical advances including the development of the polio and rubella vaccines in the 1950s,” Cunningham said.

She went on to read from a speech given by the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in which he supports the use of fetal tissue for medical research, despite his ethical misgivings.

“There’s a great optimism that life-saving therapies might be produced,” Cunningham read from Thurmond’s speech transcript. “Cells and tissue capable for transplantation could include insulin-producing cells to cure diabetes, heart cells to rebuild damaged hearts or new brain cells for victims of Parkinson’s disease or other neurological disorders.”

But Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Emerald Isle) countered Cunningham, saying she was “sickened” by the idea of fetal tissue being used for disease research.

She noted that her husband was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“Would I ever want someone to sell the part of a baby … to someone for research so that they could help my husband with Parkinson’s? Absolutely not,” she said. “There are adult stem cells that can be used, embryonic cord cells that can be used.”

Questions remain about the scope of the bill, as the language forbids transfer of funds “for any consideration whatsoever” in the exchange of the tissue. Some are wondering if this could shut down academic research using fetal tissue at North Carolina’s research universities.

Teen-pregnancy programs disallowed

A small provision at the end of the bill also would disallow any organizations that perform abortions from participating in teen pregnancy-prevention or family-planning programs, a measure aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood.

“The single best teenage pregnancy-prevention program that I saw in my experience was one run by Planned Parenthood,” said Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Hillsborough), a social worker. “What they did was they trained teenagers on how to talk to each other about how to prevent teenaged pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

“I don’t want to see any more abortions,” Meyer said. “To me, the best way to prevent those abortions is to have effective programs.”

After an hour of debate, the measure passed, 79-29, with 12 Democrats crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans.

In a statement released after the vote, Melissa Reed, head of Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic said that “by attacking these programs, this legislature shows they are willing to punish North Carolina’s teens just to make a political statement.”

The bill now goes to McCrory’s desk. He is expected to sign the bill.

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