Republicans call for investigation into UPitt's federally funded fetal tissue research

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At least eight Republican politicians, including three from Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, are calling for an investigation into the University of Pittsburgh’s fetal tissue research.

Although the university has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, it appeared as though it would continue to face public scrutiny over a federally funded program that utilized fetal organs. It’s unclear what exactly happened during the procedures performed to obtain that tissue. However, multiple doctors and scholars have argued that Pitt’s statements point to the possibility of organ extraction from live fetuses — claims Pitt vehemently denies. 

At the federal level, calls for investigation have come from Reps. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., Mike Kelly, R-Pa., Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Mary Miller, R-Ill. Several U.S. Senate candidates – Ohio’s J.D. Vance, Pennsylvania’s Sean Parnell, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt – have scrutinized Pitt’s practices as well. 

And in a statement to Fox News, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said recent reports were “deeply disturbing.”

“The federally funded research with the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Pitt demonstrates a clear need to protect the sanctity of life at every level of scientific advancement,” she said.

Rep. Kelly said in a statement to Fox News: “Any American whose moral compass points true north should be outraged that the organs of alive, unborn children may have been harvested for medical research at the University of Pittsburgh, and that taxpayers were unwittingly forced to pay for it by Washington bureaucrats.”

“There should be an immediate investigation of the university and NIH. Both have many questions to answer. Not just from lawmakers who oversee research funding, but potentially from law enforcement,” added Kelly, whose district neighbors the 18th district, where Pittsburgh is located. 

The representative for the 18th district – Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. – did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment. Neither did the offices of Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., or Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

Reschenthaler, who represents Pennsylvania’s 14th district, said he supported “a complete and thorough investigation into whether these alleged activities violated the Trump Administration’s federal funding prohibition on research using fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions.”

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said his office was already working on the issue. “My office has been in contact with the University to receive more information and they have committed to transparency, but at the end of the day there needs to be a full investigation,” he said. “I am working with several of my colleagues to ensure that the agencies responsible for providing grant funding deliver a report to Congress on the specifics of the programs and whether additional actions are required.”

Miller honed in on the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded the research, in a tweet earlier this month while Parnell similarly tweeted a statement calling for investigation.

Pitt spokesman Kevin Zwick lambasted the accusations, telling Fox News on Thursday: “These are irresponsible and false accusations about vital, life-saving research using techniques that are common at universities and medical institutions throughout the world. The University of Pittsburgh does not perform abortions, and complies with all laws and regulations concerning this tightly regulated research.”

As Fox News previously noted, Pitt has encountered questions about its relationship to its medical center (UPMC). For example, the website for its human tissue bank identifies labs in three of UPMC’s facilities. The university also shares staff with, has received tissue from, and engages in other capacities with its medical center.

Critics like Dr. Ronna Jurow, an ob-gyn who identifies as “pro-choice,” took issue with Pitt’s description of ischemic time. According to NIH, ischemia is a “[l]ack of blood supply to a part of the body.” David Seldin, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for news, previously said: “In this case, ischemia time refers to the time after the tissue collection procedure and before cooling for storage and transport.”

The level of blood supply or blood flow raises questions about cardiac activity and ultimately, life. 

Pitt has since circulated a list of assertions, such as that “[t]here is no heartbeat and no blood flow at the time the tissue sample is collected.”

They also acknowledge that “to remove organs from a fetus or baby while its heart was still beating would be immoral and unethical? and a felony offense, illegal under both state and federal law.” 

Still, questions remain as to how exactly ischemic time could be minimized in the manner Seldin described. While Pitt has maintained that it “requires our partners to comply with all state and federal laws,” it has also said that it doesn’t perform the abortion procedure itself.

Obtained by Fox News, Pitt’s list of “False Claims vs. Facts” contains a slightly different definition than the one Seldin initially provided. 

It read: “In the context of collecting tissue samples for research, warm ischemic time refers to minimizing the time tissue remains at room temperature after removal and before being preserved or provided to the researcher for further study.”

This isn’t the first time Pitt’s fetal tissue research has attracted attention. Earlier this year, the state legislature held hearings in which they discussed a study involving fetal scalps grafted onto rodents. Pitt has historically had a professor who filmed and conducted live, noninvasive experiments on fetuses as young as 5 ½ to 14 weeks. And in 1972, a nurse at a hospital affiliated with Pitt reportedly testified to seeing fetuses breathing.

Vance, also known for “Hillbilly Elegy,” said in a Thursday statement: “I sincerely hope that federal and state political leaders do investigate exactly what’s been going on at the University of Pittsburgh and hold anyone responsible for the barbaric activities that have been reported, fully accountable to the law.”

A former superior court judge and Republican state Rep. Kathy Rapp are also requesting investigations.

Response from law enforcement has been relatively sparse. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro notably tweeted “abortion is health care” as news reports surfaced this month. His office and Gov. Tom Wolf’s did not respond to Fox News’ requests for comment last week. The district attorney’s office referred Fox News to Shapiro’s office and U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman’s office, which declined to comment.

Mike Manko, a spokesperson at the DA’s office, said he “was not aware of any communication with either University of Pittsburgh Police or City of Pittsburgh Police by individuals claiming that crimes have been committed.”

NIH did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment, although it has also maintained that it complies with federal law. It previously told Fox News: “NIH is committed to ensuring that research involving human fetal tissue is conducted responsibly and meets the highest ethical standards.”

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