Statements from the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) indicate one of its federally funded research projects utilized organs that might have been extracted from live fetuses, several scholars and doctors have said.
The issue emerged earlier this week when Judicial Watch (JW) released documents in which Pitt told the National Institutes of Health (NIH) it sought to "develop a pipeline to the acquisition, quality control and distribution of human genitourinary [urinary and genital organs and functions] samples obtained throughout development (6-42 weeks gestation)." According to NIH, 40 weeks is considered full term while after 42 weeks is considered "post-term" or "overdue."
Pitt referenced a long list of organs, "includ[ing] liver, heart, gonads, legs, brain, genitourinary tissues including kidneys, ureters and bladders." The last three were a focus for the research project, known as GUDMAP, for which Pitt was seeking funding.
Fetal tissue research has been a controversial subject for Pitt as it recently attracted scrutiny over an experiment that involved grafting fetal scalps onto rodents. But the issue stretches beyond the university as fetal tissue is extracted through abortion techniques that have raised anti-abortion activists' concerns about live births and potential violations of tissue-trafficking law.
One part, among others, from the released documents sounded alarm bells for Center for Medical Progress founder David Daleiden. In positioning itself as a potential "hub" for fetal tissue, Pitt told NIH it could minimize "ischemia time … to ensure the highest quality biological specimens."
According to NIH, ischemia is a "[l]ack of blood supply to a part of the body." David Seldin, the university's assistant vice chancellor for news, told Fox News on Thursday: "In this case, ischemia time refers to the time after the tissue collection procedure and before cooling for storage and transport. It does not have an impact on how the procedure is performed, which is always at the discretion of the attending physician and determined with the patient’s health as the top priority."
Daleiden, who is not a physician but has followed these issues for years, quickly responded on Twitter that "[i]f ischemia starts when the organ is cut off from blood, and that happens AFTER the ‘collection’—that means there's bloodflow DURING ‘collection.'" For him and others, blood flow raises questions about cardiac activity, which in turn, raises questions about whether the fetus is alive.
Since JW's release, multiple physicians have said Pitt's statements indicate fetuses could have been alive during the tissue collection that fed GUDMAP research – something the university vehemently denies.
Daleiden found support, however, from what some might consider an unlikely source. Dr. Ronna Jurow, an ob-gyn who previously worked at Planned Parenthood and describes herself as "pro-choice," told Fox News Thursday that "there's no question" the fetus would be alive during tissue collection. Jurow hasn't worked at Pitt but was basing her comments on what Pitt told NIH and Seldin's statement to Fox News.
"The baby’s going to have to be either born alive or be killed immediately prior to delivery," said Dr. Kathi Aultman, an ob-gyn who previously performed abortions but later came to oppose the procedure.
Dr. Christina Francis, who chairs the American Association of Pro-Life Gynecologists (AAPLOG), told Fox News she agreed with Daleiden. "If it says ischemia time starts after tissue collection, that means that the baby is still alive at the time that they’re harvesting the tissue," she said, likening the practices to those of the infamous Kermit Gosnell. "It’s horrific and does not constitute good science or compassionate medical care."
Ensuring "fetal demise," as some put it, can involve dismembering the fetus or using a feticide like digoxin — both of which may render the tissue unusable.
"If Pittsburgh wants live tissue, they cannot use digoxin," Jurow told Fox News.
It's unclear how abortions were performed that resulted in tissue for GUDMAP. Pitt's application lists three types of abortion procedures that would potentially be performed on donors: dilation and curettage, dilation and evacuation, or labor- induction abortions.
Labor induction, in particular, has prompted anti-abortion concerns that fetuses could be born intact or alive. Real world examples of those outcomes have been uncovered during depositions for Daleiden's civil trial with Planned Parenthood. These centered on affiliates in other parts of the country, not Pitt.
Pitt has also historically had a professor who filmed and conducted live, noninvasive experiments on fetuses as young as 5 ½ to 14 weeks. And in 1972, a nurse at a hospital affiliated with Pitt testified to seeing fetuses breathing.
"It was repulsive to watch live fetuses being packed in ice while still moving and trying to breathe and move, then being rushed to some laboratory and hear a medical student later discuss the experience of examining various organs of a once-live baby," the nurse said, according to Suzanne Rini's "Beyond Abortion."
Neither Pitt nor its medical center responded to Fox News' questions about the professor or the nurse's testimony. According to Rini, UPMC didn't deny the allegation following the nurse's testimony.
It's unclear what exactly happened during the abortions that yielded the tissue later used for Pitt's federally funded study. Moreover, the university maintains all of the abortions complied with state law.
Nonetheless, its statements have inspired skepticism. "One thing is sure," said Francis' colleague, AAPLOG CEO Dr. Donna Harrison. "[T]hese babies would not receive a feticide procedure prior to the abortion, because induction abortion after feticide can take hours to days, and the baby's tissue would be ischemic from the time of demise until delivery … [I]t is likely that these bab[ies] are being delivered by induction abortion, and likely that a substantial portion of these babies are actually alive at the time of organ harvesting."
David Prentice, vice president and research director of the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, told Fox News: "As the saying goes, if you don’t have anything to hide, don’t act like it."
Prentice holds a doctorate in biochemistry and has over 40 years’ experience as a scientific researcher and professor. The Trump administration appointed Prentice to serve on the Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board at the Health and Human Services Department.
"These heavily-redacted documents hide a lot of details, and because one method of abortion listed is ‘labor induction,’ there is the distinct possibility that some of these babies were born alive and then their organs harvested, which would be a horrific abuse of science and human decency," Prentice said. "There are so many questions raised by this heavily redacted information, and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as NIH, owe clarity and transparency to the American people."
Stacy Transancos, who is not a physician but has a doctorate in chemistry and studies these issues while leading the St. Philip Institute, told Fox News: "[J]ust taking Seldin at his word, yes, it sounds like he's saying the organs are harvested from still-living babies or at least from babies killed just before harvesting."
In an email to Fox News, Seldin firmly denied fetuses were alive during tissue collection. "These irresponsible accusations are completely false," he said.
Dr. Mitchell Creinin, who served in leading positions at Pitt, also said via email that Seldin's original statement didn't imply the fetuses were "'alive.'" Creinin himself placed that word in quotes, apparently reflecting the differences in opinion as to when a fetus dies during procedures.
Fox News asked Creinin via email: "If ischemia starts after the tissue collection procedure, wouldn't that indicate that the procedure for removing the tissue starts before loss of blood flow?" Creinin responded: "Not necessarily. Their [Pitt's] definition is correct."
Seldin added: "As we have repeatedly noted, the University of Pittsburgh does not perform medical procedures and is not part of the tissue collection process. All of the University’s research is closely supervised to ensure compliance with strict and rigorous federal and state laws and regulations."
When asked at what point fetuses die in the tissue collection process, Seldin told Fox News: "As we have noted before, Pitt does not play a role in any medical procedure."
He did not respond to an inquiry for additional explanation or if he would like to clarify his initial comment about ischemia. It's unclear why he spoke about the issue if Pitt played no role in medical procedures.
Mapping Pitt's interactions with its medical center and Planned Parenthood staff
The responses from Seldin – who previously worked in the Clinton White House, for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and as NARAL's communications director – left many questions unanswered. For example, critics' accusations referred to the nature of the tissue extraction rather than what Seldin primarily addressed, which was the researchers' conduct. His statement also appeared to sidestep the documented connections between Pitt, UPMC and Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania (PPWP).
The university told NIH in 2015 that its tissue bank was embedded within Pitt's "Department of Pathology … thus providing rapid access to very high quality tissue and biological specimens." Pitt has repeatedly told Fox News that it and UPMC are separate entities, although the website for its human tissue bank identifies labs in three of UPMC's facilities.
In the 2019 annual report for its Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, Pitt identified the UMPC Magee-Womens Hospital as its "main clinical location" and listed activities of university professors practicing medicine there.
The university also shares staff with, has received tissue from, and engages in other capacities with its medical center. For example, the university has hosted a residency program in which participants improved abortion techniques and engaged in other activities while working in UPMC facilities and a PPWP clinic.
As was the case with Creinin, PPWP's medical director, Dr. Beatrice Chen, has served in various positions for UPMC, Pitt and the Planned Parenthood affiliate. Several citations on Pitt's website also list the two as co-authors for publications.
Chen, who serves as Magee's director of family planning, was listed in Pitt's annual report as "outreach/contracted care," along with three other doctors for PPWP. One of Daleiden's undercover videos also raised questions about PPWP's connection to Pitt and a subsidiary of UPMC. While UPMC has denied having a "procurement relationship" with PPWP, Chen's various capacities have also prompted concerns.
UPMC therapist Ryan Navarro submitted a complaint to UPMC's compliance hotline earlier this year, noting that Chen also served on the university's Institutional Review Board (IRB), which vets Pitt's research projects. Navarro told Fox News on Monday that he was told the complaint was filed to Pitt's ethics department, although he hadn't heard any further updates. Neither Pitt nor Chen responded to Fox News' inquiries about this complaint.
When Vice Chancellor Paul Supowitz corresponded with state lawmakers about the fetal scalp study, he noted that "[t]he University’s Institutional Review Board approved the acquisition of stem cells."
Obtained by Fox News, the statement read: "The researchers in this matter followed all applicable federal and state guidelines and regulations (with Pennsylvania having one of the most restrictive set of requirements in the nation), as well as strict protocols approved by the University."
"The University’s committees on Institutional Animal Care and Use, Human Stem Cell Research Oversight, and Institutional Biosafety approved the research. It is funded by a research grant from the National Institutes of Health. The tissues came from a tissue bank that provides a wide array of biological tissues for research and meets extensive legal, regulatory and University requirements."
UPMC did not respond to Fox News' recent inquiry about whether it performed abortions that resulted in tissue used for GUDMAP.
Navarro told Fox News his complaint has not been closed. When asked about Navarro's concerns earlier this year, Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick told Fox News that the university also had "no procurement relationship" with Planned Parenthood. He added that "[f]or context, many of Pitt’s faculty hold separate clinical roles and volunteer positions outside the University; this is common at academic medical centers and Pitt is no exception."
"To ensure that these activities do not give rise to conflicts of interest or effort, the University has a robust process that requires disclosure of faculty’s external engagements for review. Faculty who are employed by both Pitt and UPMC are subject to conflict reviews by both institutions."
Zwick also told Fox News: "The University does not obtain fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood, does not use any of its state appropriation to fund fetal tissue research and follows all laws and regulations governing fetal tissue research."
PPWP and its national component, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), did not respond to Fox News' requests for comment.
Intact fetuses, beating hearts and the broader debate about fetal tissue research
Proponents say fetal tissue research helps scientists develop treatments for debilitating diseases. In May, Zwick said: "Researchers at Pitt and other leading medical research institutions use fetal tissue in certain instances because it has proven to be an important method for combatting and curing some of our most devastating diseases, including ALS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury and others."
While it's unclear how the controversy will unfold, a leading state lawmaker has already called on the auditor general to probe the university's funding.
In a letter obtained by Fox News, Republican state Rep. Kathy Rapp raised special concern last week about Pitt's goal of acquiring a large number of minority fetuses – which Seldin said stemmed from an emphasis on those populations most impacted by kidney disease.
Recent debate over the issue has been mounting since 2015, when Daleiden released his undercover videos of officials at PPFA affiliates discussing tissue transfers. The ensuing controversy prompted congressional referrals to federal agencies and an investigation by the Justice Department. It's unclear how those referrals have proceeded in federal agencies.
Planned Parenthood also brought a civil suit against Daleiden, resulting in sworn depositions that shed light on the condition of fetuses after abortion. At least one Planned Parenthood official, Jon Dunn, acknowledged that his affiliate saw an infant born alive after an abortion. What's more, the depositions included a procurement manager from one of the nation's oldest tissue procurers, Advanced Biosciences Resources, stating she saw intact fetuses or those with closed abdomens leave the mother's womb.
The manager, Perrin Larton, also discussed seeing hearts "beating independently." "There are -- I can see hearts that are in -- not in an intact POC [product of conception] that are beating independently, but they're not attached to anything," Larton said in a transcript reviewed by Fox News. Larton did not respond to an inquiry from Fox News when it reported on the deposition last summer.
Dr. Deborah Nucatola, a Planned Parenthood medical director, told Daleiden's attorney she was "sure" she'd seen nonviable fetuses exit the uterus. By nonviable, she meant "not capable of survival."
Planned Parenthood has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, and in 2018, its Kentucky affiliate flatly denied engaging in infanticide. The national office also condemned a bill that year that would impose criminal penalties on doctors who didn't provide abortion survivors with lifesaving care.
"Medical guidelines and ethics already compel physicians facing life-threatening circumstances to respond. Doctors and clinicians oppose this law because it prevents them from giving the best care to their patients," the group said.
The debate intensified earlier this year when Pennsylvania's state legislature held a hearing in which they discussed the study involving fetal scalps and rodents. Pitt researchers participated in the study and the tissue was obtained by the university's human tissue bank, also known as the Pitt Biospecimen Core.
Around that time, Daleiden released a video alleging that sources said Pitt was a major hub for the FBI's investigation into PPFA's fetal tissue practices. Pitt's Supowitz told the state legislature that the university had "no knowledge of any FBI investigation into our fetal tissue research practices."
The Department of Justice has remained relatively quiet since its 2017 letter about the investigation into PPFA's practices. That letter did not mention Pitt. Earlier this year, the issue arose in questions from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to then-nominee for attorney general Merrick Garland.
"Based on evidence that Planned Parenthood profited from the purchase and sale of fetal tissue, the FBI opened its current investigation into the sale of fetal tissue," Lee stated.
The FBI’s Pittsburgh office previously told Fox News it wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations. Lee's office did not respond to Fox News' April inquiry about this.
PPFA has vehemently denied selling fetal tissue. It's defended itself by citing the lack of public evidence in addition to findings from multiple state-level investigations while arguing that Daleiden's videos were heavily edited -- criticism that a federal judge disputed in 2019.
A 2015 review by Pennsylvania's Democratic administration also found no evidence that PPFA was involved in fetal tissue donation in the state. Its health secretary also said there was "no evidence that any Planned Parenthood site in this Commonwealth is involved in the buying or selling of fetal tissue."