ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — No state laws were broken by the transfer of fetal tissue between an Albuquerque abortion clinic and researchers at the University of New Mexico, according to findings outlined Thursday by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
The state’s top prosecutors detailed their findings in a letter to members of a special U.S. congressional committee created in 2015 to investigate Planned Parenthood and the world of fetal tissue research.
The committee, in a lengthy report issued nearly a year ago, accused the group of violating U.S. laws by altering abortion procedures to obtain fetal tissue, disclosing patients’ private information to firms that procure the tissue and “a general disinterest in clinical integrity.”
Planned Parenthood has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, and Democratic congressional representatives have said the GOP-led probe unearthed no wrongdoing and wasted taxpayers’ money.
As part of its work, the panel also examined tissue procurement firms and research entities including the University of New Mexico. The report cited 15 instances in which the committee provided information to U.S. and state authorities of possible violations of federal and state laws.
The allegations were first forwarded to Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office in 2016, and similar claims were made by the anti-abortion group New Mexico Alliance for Life.
Balderas, a Democrat, ordered civil and criminal reviews but his office said there was insufficient evidence to indicate state violations. The inquiries were limited to state laws because Balderas has no jurisdiction over federal law.
“We consider this matter closed,” the attorney general’s office said in its letter to the New Mexico group.
But it’s possible the long-running controversy surrounding the use of fetus tissue in medical research is not over because U.S. Justice Department officials in December confirmed the FBI was considering criminal investigations.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, renewed his request for an investigation in September. He cited the allegations uncovered by the congressional committee and raised questions that women electing to receive abortions at the Albuquerque clinic — Southwestern Women’s Options — did not have enough information to consent to the procedure.
That consent is also the focus of a lawsuit pending in state district court that was filed by women who were treated at Southwestern Women’s Options. Their attorney, Michael Seibel, said the attorney general’s office did not contact any of the victims as part of the inquiries.
Seibel and New Mexico Alliance for Life accused the attorney general’s office of protecting political special interests.
James Hallinan, a spokesman for Balderas, denied the claim and said Balderas’ office conducted a thorough investigation that included interviews.
Southwestern Women’s Options, one of the nation’s few providers of late-term abortions, has in the past provided the UNM Health Sciences Center with tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research. The clinic and health center officials have repeatedly said the fetal tissue transfer is legal.
Planned Parenthood spokesman Benjamin Halle said Thursday that in addition to the New Mexico attorney general’s findings, investigations by 13 other states, a grand jury in Texas and other congressional committees have found no wrongdoing on the part of his organization.
At issue in New Mexico were state statutes that cover anatomical donations and clinical research activities involving fetuses.
State prosecutors say the arrangement between the abortion clinic and the university may have resulted in benefits for each entity but that the donation of the fetal tissue did not amount to an illegal “purchase” or “sale” under the statute. They also found that the tissue was not used for transplantation or therapy, which would violate state law.
As for the state law that governs research related to fetuses, the attorney general’s office said it was never intended to regulate fetal tissue resulting from an abortion given the definitions in the statute.