MARCH 4, 2016
LAST month, Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, in her capacity as chairwoman of the newly created House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, issued subpoenas to three organizations: StemExpress, a company that supplies biological specimens for research; the University of New Mexico, where scientists conduct medical research using fetal tissue; and Southwestern Women’s Options, an abortion clinic in Albuquerque.
In addition to requiring these groups to produce exhaustive documentation about how exactly they procure and handle fetal tissue, the subpoenas demand that the organizations identify personnel, including medical students, who were in proximity to abortions and their aftermath. Despite objections from the panel’s minority members, Ms. Blackburn is insisting that the subpoenas’ targets name names.
House committee leaders have rarely issued unilateral subpoenas. In the last 50 years it appears that only the Republicans Dan Burton of Indiana and Darrell Issa of California used them, each as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. Both men created divisive and ultimately unproductive investigations. Despite the poor example these investigations set, House Republicans recently moved to grant at least seven congressional leaders the power to issue subpoenas unilaterally.
In issuing the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives’ subpoenas, Ms. Blackburn claims to be motivated to “get the facts about medical practices of abortion service providers and the business practices of the procurement organizations who sell baby body parts.” But the surreptitiously recorded videos made by anti-abortion activists that accused abortion providers of selling baby body parts have been found to be deceptively edited and essentially fraudulent.
Henry Waxman, a former California congressman who served as the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee from 2007 to 2009, told me that “issuing a subpoena is not a benign activity. It involves the intrusive power of the federal government to compel people to come in and testify and to turn over documents. If you don’t comply, you can be held in contempt of Congress, which is a criminal charge.”
At the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives’ first hearing on Wednesday, Democratic members expressed worries about Ms. Blackburn’s demands. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said that they create “a partisan and dangerous witch hunt.” Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who is also on the panel, said that making the identities of abortion-clinic personnel public could “endanger their lives.”
This is not idle speculation. “Outing” abortion-care providers has played a deadly role in anti-abortion terrorism for two decades. In 1997, Neal Horsley, an anti-abortion activist, created a website called the Nuremberg Files that listed the names and addresses of doctors who provided abortions, including an entry for my uncle Barnett Slepian. In 1998, an anti-abortion extremist shot and killed him at home in Amherst, N.Y., in front of his wife and children.
In 2002, Operation Rescue (whose president was a founding board member of the Center for Medical Progress, which made the recent “baby body parts” videos) moved its headquarters to Kansas to focus its energies on ending the Wichita practice of Dr. George Tiller, who specialized in late-term abortions. The group maintained a “Tiller Watch” webpage that listed the physician’s whereabouts. In 2009, an anti-abortion extremist shot and killed Dr. Tiller at his church.
Three months ago, a gunman shot 12 people, killing three, at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. When questioned by the police as to his motive, the gunman is reported to have said, “No more baby parts.”
At Wednesday’s hearing of the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, Mr. Nadler made a motion to quash Ms. Blackburn’s subpoenas. It failed on a party-line vote. So far Ms. Blackburn has not promised to redact any documents the panel receives or protect anyone from public exposure.
There is a wide range of feelings about abortion in this country. There are policy debates and moral conversations to be had about the procedure. But elected leaders should not be using the powers of their offices to intimidate citizens who hold different points of view.
Dr. Curtis Boyd, who owns and operates Southwestern Women’s Options in Albuquerque with his wife, Glenna Halvorson-Boyd, says that he will comply with the investigative panel’s demands — except for identifying his staff, volunteers or visitors. “I lived through the McCarthy era,” Dr. Boyd told me. “I’ve lived and worked through the last 20 years of anti-abortion violence. I know that naming those names could be dangerous. So I won’t do it. Ever. No matter what.”