University of Pittsburgh contacted NIH for help defending experiments on aborted baby body parts

Building 45 Natcher, home of the NIH Visitor Center and Nobel Laureate Exhibit Hallin Bethesda, Md., May 24, 2012. | Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

New records released by Judicial Watch suggest that the University of Pittsburgh reached out to former National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins for help defending its fetal organ experiments, which have attracted controversy due to concerns about their legality and ethics. 

Judicial Watch announced Monday that it had obtained 34 pages of records, including an email from last October that the University of Pittsburgh’s Associate Senior Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning, Dr. Jeremy Berg, sent to Collins.

The conservative group stated that it obtained the information in response to a lawsuit filed in November against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for communication records after HHS and NIH failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request. 

“I write regarding ongoing efforts to undermine important science using fetal tissue. As you no doubt know, various public universities have been the subject of rotating attacks about research using fetal tissue, sometimes citing NIH support for the research,” Berg contended. “It is now the University of Pittsburgh[’s]turn in the spotlight.”

The email highlighted the negative press coverage surrounding reports about the universitytransplanting fetal body parts onto rodents for experimental purposes, creating concerns about organ harvesting of born-alive infants. Berg insisted in the email that, regarding Pitt’s experiments, “The University believes that all appropriate practices and laws have been followed.” 

“We have been discussing these issues and it seems that this is an organized attempt to delegitimize science based on fetal tissue rather than to identify misbehavior (although, of course, any misbehavior does create opportunities for outrage),” he continued. “In light of this, we feel that the scientific community would benefit if more institutions could stand together to take some of the power out of the one-at-a-time strategy that appears to be operating.”

Berg requested that they find an appropriate venue for University Chancellor Pat Gallagher to meet and discuss the issue with Collins or “other appropriate individuals at NIH.” The following day, former NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, who now serves as its acting director, informed Berg via email that a meeting had been arranged for Oct. 20, 2021, between NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Mike Lauer, Gallagher and other Pitt officials. 

A September 2020 study from the University of Pittsburgh published in Scientific Reports disclosed researchers’ efforts to develop “humanized mice” by transplanting fetal body parts onto rodents. The material necessary to create skin grafts on the rodents was reportedly procured by scalping children who were aborted at 18 to 20 weeks gestation. 

Public records released last August by Judicial Watch and the pro-life investigative group Center for Medical Progress included a $3 million grant application that the University of Pittsburgh submitted to the NIH in 2015. Pitt emphasized in the application that it had “over 18 years of experience” collecting aborted baby body parts, making it an ideal candidate to become a “fetal distribution hub” for the GenitoUrinary Developmental Molecular Anatomy Project.

GUDMAP is an assortment of laboratories working to provide the scientific and medical communities with the means to conduct research on the genitourinary tract. The organization’s Tissue Hub website describes how its researchers “isolate human genitourinary tissues” from babies aborted between six and 24 weeks gestation. 

In the application, the university claimed that in its process of harvesting aborted body parts, “Ischemia time is minimized.” According to the NIH, this refers to “the time a tissue, organ, or body part remains at body temperature after its blood supply has been reduced or cut off but before it is cooled or reconnected to a blood supply.”

The university also identified “labor induction” as the “procedure that will be used to obtain the tissue.”

As CMP noted: “If the fetus’ heartbeat and blood circulation continue in a labor induction abortion for harvesting organs, it means the fetus is being delivered while still alive and the cause of death is the removal of the organs.”

Dr. Ronna Jurow, an OB/GYN who previously worked at Planned Parenthood and considers herself “pro-choice,” said in a statement to Fox News last August that there is “no question” the university’s comments about ischemia time means infants would be alive when their organs were harvested.

The report prompted nearly 100 members of Congress to demand a thorough review of Pitt’s federally-funded research practices in a letter directed at Attorney General Merrick Garland, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and then-NIH director Collins. 

The NIH and the University of Pittsburgh didn't immediately respond to The Christian Post’s request for comment for this article.

The university has previously denied wrongdoing and states that it doesn't do medical procedures. The Federalist reported that a February letter from the NIH to members of Congress pointed to the investigation authorized by the university. NIH acknowledged that its Office of Extramural Research had engaged in "discussions with the University of Pittsburgh to determine the veracity of these allegations.”

“The University of Pittsburgh commissioned an independent, third-party firm to review and assess their fetal tissue research processes and practices,” the letter from NIH Acting Principal Deputy Director Tara Schwetz, said, according to The Federalist. “This assessment reviewed all of the University of Pittsburgh’s activities related to procurement, disbursement, and use of fetal tissue to determine if they were fully compliant with all applicable laws.”

Republicans have contended that the investigation was inadequate because it didn't investigate the source of the university's tissue bank, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The school has maintained that the medical center is a separate, private entity. 

"The University of Pittsburgh’s investigation is a whitewash," Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus, told Fox News.

"A truly transparent and comprehensive assessment would not have evaded the questions raised by public records, especially and including whether the University of Pittsburgh used the body parts of babies who were born alive and died from having their organs harvested, as well as if individuals procuring the baby body parts for the university altered abortion procedures to suit their gruesome research."

In a congressional hearing last week, HHS Secretary Xavier Beccera was asked by Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., if fetal tissue "used for this research was derived from babies who were born alive and then killed by organ or tissue harvesting, would that be a violation of law." According to The Federalist, Beccera didn't directly answer the question. 

“Fetal tissue has been instrumental in helping so many Americans find life-saving treatment and we have to make sure we are respectful of the standards that are in place,” Becerra was quoted as saying, adding that the HHS must ensure that fetal tissue is not being used “in ways that are not appropriate under the law.”

In an interview with The Christian Post last year, Collins, a Christian who oversaw the NIH since Barack Obama's presidency in 2009, defended the ethics of fetal tissue research. The 71-year-old geneticist said he is "a person of faith who believes in the sanctity of human life and [a] person of science who's trying to come up with ways that science can save lives."

Collins said that since "people have elective terminations of pregnancy every day," "those materials" shouldn't necessarily be "discarded.”

“Suppose it was possible on a rare instance for something that's about to be discarded with full consent after the decision by the mother to be used to develop something that might save somebody's life,” Collins said.

“In that case, I think even God could look at that and go, ‘OK, it's not the thing that I would have wanted to see happening. Still, as an ethical choice between discarding or using for some benevolent purpose, maybe that's defensible.’ Now that will make some people uneasy.”

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