The decision comes after months of attacks by anti-abortion groups, triggered by the release of covert videos appearing to show Planned Parenthood staff members discussing the costs involved in sharing fetal tissues, recovered from abortion procedures, with scientists (see BioNews 814).
The new policy, which was set out in a letter last week from Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, to Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, states that the organisation will forgo even permissible reimbursements.
'Today, we're taking their smokescreen away and pushing forward with our important work on behalf of millions of women, men, and young people. The participation by a handful of our affiliates in supporting women who choose to make fetal tissue donation has always been about nothing other than honoring the desire of those women and contributing to life-saving research and cures.
'In order to completely debunk the disingenuous argument that our opponents have been using – and to reveal the true political purpose of these attacks – our Federation has decided, going forward, that any Planned Parenthood health center that is involved in donating tissue after an abortion for medical research will follow the model already in place at one of our two affiliates currently facilitating donations for fetal tissue research. That affiliate accepts no reimbursement for its reasonable expenses – even though reimbursement is fully permitted under the 1993 law.'
The Center for Medical Progress, which had made and released the videos, responded to the announcement by calling it 'an admission of guilt' of Planned Parenthood's involvement in 'illegally profiting' from fetal tissues.
The controversy surrounding the videos led to a number of hearings by Republicans in Congress, as well as calls to end the more than $500 million in federal funding that Planned Parenthood currently receives. US law prevents federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services. The organisation is also currently the subject of five congressional investigations into how it handles fetal tissues following abortions.
Planned Parenthood says that the announcement will only affect a handful of clinics in California and Oregon, as these are the only places that currently send fetal tissues to researchers and accept reimbursement for them.
The Department of Health and Human Services says that stem cells derived from fetal tissues are extremely valuable to medical research. In a letter to Congress earlier this year it wrote that fetal tissue 'continues to be a critical resource for important efforts such as research on degenerative eye disease, human development disorders such as Down syndrome, and infectious diseases, among a host of other diseases'. The Association of American Medical Colleges – which includes institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford – also recently wrote an open letter in support of the use of fetal tissue in research, saying that 'vital medical research depends on continued use of fetal tissue under current laws and regulations'.
However, Representative Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican, told The Guardian that she and others will continue to attempt to remove federal funding from Planned Parenthood: 'It is curious that, while Planned Parenthood officials maintain there has been no wrongdoing, they still find it necessary to change their policy. Clearly, this was a decision motivated by optics rather than the organisation's conscience.'