If they’re feeling any heat from the national firestorm over fetal-tissue donation, leaders of Planned Parenthood’s local affiliate aren’t showing it.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon, they opened a new $3 million women’s health clinic in Little Canada, surrounded by supporters and applauded by civic leaders, including St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
“We’ve been in the news a lot lately,” said Sarah Stoesz, president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. But the real issue, she insisted, is the future of federal funding for birth control and other medical services.
As Stoesz has stressed repeatedly in recent weeks, the local Planned Parenthood affiliate has no fetal-tisue donation program. But it still has much at stake in the national debate. It receives about $2.6 million in federal funds annually to provide cancer screenings, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. That funding could be jeopardized if Congress cut off federal funds because of allegations raised by the Center for Medical Progress, a group with ties to abortion opponents.
Early this month, the U.S. Senate did not pass a measure that would have cut off federal funding to all Planned Parenthood clinics, but the battle is expected to resume as Congress continues the budget process after its summer recess.
With the opening of its third new clinic over the past four years, however, Planned Parenthood seems to have survived the controversy without losing momentum.
“Whenever we see these types of attacks on Planned Parenthood, it really motivates our support,” said local spokeswoman Jennifer Aulwes. “We have had some donors call about it, but we have not seen any backlash in terms of support.”
Some Minnesota critics remain unconvinced by Planned Parenthood’s defense. Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, who has sponsored legislation that would require Minnesota abortion providers to be inspected like outpatient surgical centers, said the controversy raises new questions about the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.
“The news that has come out is partly why” inspections are needed, Kiel said. She added that Planned Parenthood should be audited to ensure that federal funds are “used to actually take care of women.”
“I would think abortion facilities would welcome that to show that they are providing good health care and that they are not marketing baby parts,” she said.
Beyond Planned Parenthood, the national storm seems to have left Minnesota mostly unscathed. Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota said they don’t conduct research using fetal tissue; a review of Minnesota grants from the National Institutes of Health, the main federal source of medical research funding, shows nothing earmarked for fetal-tissue research.
At the same time, Aulwes said her organization believes in the importance of fetal-tissue medical research — a sentiment echoed by a prominent Minnesota medical ethicist.
“The thing that is so paradoxical in attacking fetal tissue research is that it is an attack on an incredible frontier of prenatal medicine that isn’t off in the future, it is being done now,” said Dr. Steve Miles, a professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota.
Researchers have used fetal tissue since the 1930s, according to the American Society for Cell Biology, and relied on it to develop vaccines for polio, German measles and chickenpox.
Miles said the research has helped scientists understand fetal development, which, when paired with advances in prenatal surgery, can help prevent babies from being born with abnormalities.
“Spina bifida took everyone by surprise,” he said of a condition that can result in paralysis and brain damage. As a result, surgeons can now prevent the damage to the spinal cord that is characteristic of the condition before a child is born.
Researchers obtain fetal tissue from hospitals, nonprofit tissue banks and abortion clinics.
Nationally, Planned Parenthood denied that it sells fetal tissue for profit, as was suggested by the heavily edited videos. Officials insisted that the three state affiliates with tissue-donation programs follow all laws and federal research guidelines.
Earlier this month the organization’s president, Cecile Richards, called on the National Institutes of Health to convene a panel of medical experts to study the issue.
“The inflammatory and misleading videos have pushed this issue into the national spotlight,” she wrote. A “careful review by leading medical and ethical experts could do a lot to help the public and policymakers.”