20/20 Exposes Trafficking In Fetal Body Parts

The smoldering controversy over the harvesting of fetal body parts burst into flames March 8 when ABC's 20/20 cast new light on the shadowy world of abortion clinics, body part "procurers," and researchers.

"A three-month 20/20 investigation has uncovered an industry in which tissue and organs from aborted fetuses, donated to help medical research, are being marketed for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars," the program said in a press release.

Included in the episode is a recapitulation of the prices charged for fetal spinal cords, brains, hearts, livers, and reproductive organs. [See sidebar, this page.]

The casual air in which commerce in fetal organs was discussed by one "middle man" almost defies imagination. Dr. Miles Jones discussed brains, kidneys, hearts, and livers as he munched "lobster bisque and roast duck," 20/20 reported.

Ethicist Arthur Caplan, no friend to the pro-life movement, told 20/20 that "It's trading in body parts. There's no doubt about it." Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, added, "It's a sleazy business."

20/20's thorough investigation lent further credibility to calls for further investigation of how body parts of aborted infants are obtained from abortion clinics. Questions surround the issues of profit, consent, and the modification of abortion techniques when fetal body parts are sought.

For example, in a hidden-camera interview with Jones, a Missouri pathologist, Jones asserts that his company, Opening Lines, routinely makes large profits. Under relevant federal law, only "reasonable payments" are to be allowed.

That same interview revealed that Jones believes that by using legal "mumbo jumbo" it is easy to get women to "consent" to having their aborted babies used in medical experimentation.

In addition, in a 20/20 interview with James Bardsley of the Maryland-based Anatomic Gift Foundation, there is a strong suggestion that a different abortion technique than usual is used when there is an attempt to harvest tissues and whole organs.

Or, as 20/20 put it on its web site, "[T]here is evidence that companies may be violating the law, by openly trafficking fetal body parts, influencing consent to donate and modifying abortion procedures."

Opening Lines

One of the most pivotal considerations in the ongoing debate is the assertion that companies are selling the organs of aborted children at a profit. This is supposed to be impermissible. To understand why profiteering is taking place anyway requires some background.

Federal dollars did not pay for fetal tissue harvesting or research during the pro-life Bush Administration. However, in January 1993 - - on the third day of his new administration - - pro-abortion President Bill Clinton ended the ban. Later that same year Congress passed legislation to govern the sale of tissues and organs taken from aborted babies.

Proponents pooh-poohed critics' concerns, insisting that a market in fetal organs could never emerge. The National Journal, which ran a comprehensive piece on the whole controversy in its February 26, 2000, edition, quoted pro-abortion militant Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), who said in 1993, "It would be abhorrent to allow the sale of fetal tissue and a market to be established for that sale."

Part of the 1993 legislation [Public Law 103-43] says unambiguously that "it shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration." However, there is an escape hatch: "The term 'valuable consideration' does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue." The law does not define "reasonable."

How is does work? According to Insight magazine, ingeniously:

Because the sale of human tissue or body parts is prohibited by federal law, the traffickers have worked out an arrangement to expedite the process from which they all benefit and still remain within current interpretations of the law. For instance, the harvesters receive the fetal material as a "donation" from the abortion clinic. In return, the clinic is paid a "site fee" for rental of lab space where technicians, employed by the harvesters, perform as many dissections as necessary to fill researcher manifests. The harvesters then "donate" the body parts to the researchers and, rather than pay the harvesters for the actual body parts, "donate" the cost of the retrieval (a service) via a formal price list.

The fiction is that under this mutually acceptable agreement, no laws are broken: No body parts from aborted fetuses are sold. In nearly all cases, the entire fetus is not needed. Rather, the fetus is dissected and the parts shipped to either the private corporation, university, or government agency where the research is being conducted. Any remaining skin, tissue, bones, or organs are ground up in the sink disposal or incinerated.

Just how this plays out in Jones's business became clear in the 20/20 interview. Jones was extremely candid, thinking he was talking with potential investor. In fact, he was actually talking with a 20/20 producer.

How does Jones set his price? "It's market forces," he said to the "investor," adding, "It's what you can sell it for."

20/20 said that Jones told them he paid "just $50 plus overhead" for an average "specimen," but that "he charges an average of $250." In fact, by selling different body organs, Jones told 20/20 that he can make up to $2,500 on a single fetus.

Jones has ambitions to become both supplier and middle man. "He says he hopes to run his own abortion clinic in Mexico where he says he could get a get a greater supply of fetal tissue by offering cheaper abortion," 20/20 said. 'If you control the flow - - it's probably the equivalent of the invention of the assembly line,' " Jones said.

Then there is the issue of getting consent from the mother. According to 20/20, "Some of the most troubling evidence we found came from our undercover conversation with Dr. Jones. Here he explains how easy it is to talk a woman into donating a fetus."

You can do something that's got all the legal mumbo-jumbo in it and they'll sign it anyway. If you have someone trained to ask properly, you can get 80, 90 percent consent rates.

20/20 also interviewed a former rival, James Bardsley of the Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF), who was asked if "AGF ever encourage[s] doctors to alter the way they did abortions to get specimens?"

His first response was to say that would be "illegal." 20/20 then pointed out that one abortion clinic with whom AGF formerly did business ordinarily used a suction machine to perform "early abortions," but allegedly used a special syringe when the baby's body parts were being harvested.

"[W]asn't AGF supplying those special syringes to get better tissue?" 20/20 asked.

After a pause, Bardsley replied, "That's - - that's - - that's the logical conclusion you would draw." But he then added, "I don't believe that was altering the abortion technique."

[Bardsley later sent a letter to 20/20 saying that the clinic "already used syringes and that AGF provided special ones just to keep tissue sterile."]

The National Journal article, cited on page 4, also included an interview with Dr. Curt Freed, who has performed many transplants using fetal brain tissue. "He said he has acquired 1,000 specimens of brain tissue from fetuses seven weeks to eight weeks old," according to the National Journal. "The fetus had been aborted using 10-millimeter tubes called cannula, he said, which are wide enough to allow useable tissue to be recovered from 1 in 10 abortions."

The trouble is that leading abortionists say such abortions should be performed using a thinner tube. The bigger tubes "would hurt more...and it would increase risk" to the patient, according to the president of the National Abortion Federation, Dr. Suzanne Poppema. Poppema told the National Journal, "I don't do it that way, and I don't know anybody who does."

The same article pointed out, however, that if the "narrower tube recommended" by the leading abortionists were used, "it would have been exceedingly difficult or impossible to find undamaged brain tissue."

As the program drew to a close, co-host Charles Gibson asked correspondent Chris Wallace, "Chris, if there are laws on the books on this subject, why is it still going on? Why hasn't something been done?"

Wallace answered, "It's a question we kept asking in this investigation. We couldn't find anyone in the federal government enforcing those laws."

House Hearing

On March 9, the day after the 20/20 broadcast, the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the House Commerce Committee heard testimony from several witnesses on the subject, "Fetal Tissue: Is It Being Bought and Sold in Violation of Federal Law?"

The subcommittee had subpoenaed Dr. Jones, the head of Opening Lines, Inc., but Jones did not respond to the subpoena. The subcommittee immediately voted unanimously to recommend that Jones be cited for contempt of Congress - - a move that must be ratified by the full House.

The subcommittee had also scheduled voluntary testimony by officials of the Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF), the Maryland-based firm that sells fetal tissue, but no such official appeared.

The subcommittee did receive testimony from Dean Alberty, a medical technician who had previously harvested tissue and organs for Opening Lines and AGF, and who had appeared in the 20/20 broadcast. Alberty's claims had earlier been featured in materials widely circulated by Life Dynamics Inc., a Texas-based group. [Life Dynamics is not affiliated with Texas Right to Life, which is the Texas affiliate of National Right to Life.]

In his opening statement to the subcommittee, Alberty said he'd had a change of heart about his work because of being presented with the results of "late term abortions." He spoke of "seeing their eyes looking at you as you cut through their skull to extract their brains," "cutting open their chest cavity only to see a beating heart," and "watching two twins in a metal pan covered with blood, moving and breathing."

However, the panel was not impressed with Alberty's credibility. Some lawmakers read from a sworn affidavit signed by Alberty in January as part of a legal settlement with the Anatomic Gift Foundation, in which he cast doubt on the reliability of a Life Dynamics videotape in which he appeared disguised as a woman called "Kelly."

"Life Dynamics may have changed some of my answers and it is possible that Life Dynamics substituted another person in my place in portions of the videotape as it has been circulated," Alberty said in the affidavit. "Based on the small portion of the videotape that I have seen, I do not know if the videotape is reliable or correct."

Asked by a congressman why his sworn statement differed from what he'd said in the Life Dynamics video, Alberty responded, "When I was under oath I told the truth. . . . Anything I said on a video when I was not under oath, that's a different story." Alberty also said that some of his statements to Life Dynamics were made because he thought "that's what they wanted to hear." Alberty was reportedly paid $10,000 by Life Dynamics, plus over $11,000 in expenses.

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Republicans on the Commerce Committee, afterwards told the press, "Not only has his [Alberty's] credibility been shattered, but so has the credibility of Life Dynamics."

But the doubt cast on Alberty's credibility "does not mitigate the fact it appears there is a trafficking of tissue parts in violation of federal law," Schmidt said.

At NRL News deadline, it was unclear what direction the subcommittee's investigation would take in the future. It appears that pro-abortion members of the panel would prefer to focus entirely on the activities of Dr. Jones, but some other members believe that a broader look at trafficking in fetal organ harvesting should be pursued. Pro-life Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.), a member of the subcommittee, said he would soon introduce legislation to require increased monitoring of all transfers involving fetal tissue.

In addition, on March 11, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Missouri, office of the FBI told Reuters, "We are investigating possible criminal violations in the marketing of fetal tissue to determine if there is a violation of federal criminal law."

ABC 20/20 chief correspondent Chris Wallace told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, "He [Alberty] said under oath that everything he told '20/20' was the truth. . . . [W]e believe that parts of his story were true and we believe that because we were able to verify them with other sources."

"The bottom line is that we absolutely stand by every point we made in our stories," Wallace said.

A Real Audio recording of the entire hearing (which exceeds five hours) is available on the internet at the website of the House Commerce Committee, www.house.gov/commerce.