Congressional Investigation Documents University of New Mexico’s Use of Aborted Fetal Tissue

According to the report, university and state officials do not appear to be addressing the matter.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, chair of the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, at the April 20 hearing.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, chair of the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, at the April 20 hearing. (photo: Rep. Marsha Blackburn Facebook)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On at least two occasions, undergraduate and graduate students at the University of New Mexico dissected the brains of aborted children during a six-week summer educational research program.

And for more than 20 years, a controversial late-term abortion facility in downtown Albuquerque has provided tissue and organs from aborted babies to the university. Several of the facility’s doctors have even enjoyed “volunteer faculty” positions at the university that enabled them access to libraries and recreational facilities even though they did not teach any actual classes.

Those findings, among many others, are documented in a congressional investigative report that shows the University of New Mexico, over the last two decades, has forged close ties with Southwestern Women’s Options, a business that performs abortions through the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

The report, released this summer by a select investigative panel of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, alleges the “symbiotic relationship” between the university and the abortion center possibly violates New Mexico state law prohibiting the donations of aborted fetal tissue for scientific research and federal statutes that make it illegal to profit from human fetal tissue.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, chairwoman of the select investigative panel, signed a referral letter on June 23 to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas Jr., recommending a criminal investigation into New Mexico University’s fetal-tissue arrangement with Southwestern Women’s Options.

In the letter, Blackburn said the select panel discovered that “personnel within UNM’s hospital and medical school have aggressively engaged in expanding abortion in New Mexico through the offices, personnel and resources of UNM.”

The University of New Mexico did not return a message from the Register seeking comment, though a spokesman for the university’s Health Sciences Center told the Albuquerque Journal that the university categorically denies the congressional select panel’s assertions in “every respect.”

James Hallinan, a spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, told the Register in a prepared statement that the office has received a public referral and the matter is under review.

“All complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General are fully reviewed and appropriate action is taken,” Hallinan said.


Not Surprised

The congressional panel’s findings did not surprise many of the pro-life organizations that, for years, have been conducting their own investigations into the connections between the University of New Mexico and the local abortion industry.

“We kind of suspected it. We knew the university was hiring pro-abortionists and that there was a strong pro-abortion agenda they were pushing forward,” said Tara Shaver, a pro-life missionary with Protest ABQ, an Albuquerque-based pro-life organization.

Said Shaver, “Our research and the alarms we’ve been sounding over the years have finally paid off and turned into the panel investigating.”

Protest ABQ, along with New Mexico Alliance for Life, Operation Rescue, Live Action and others, provided documentation and materials to the congressional committee, which began looking into the situation at the University of New Mexico last year, after the Center for Medical Progress’ undercover investigation that alleged Planned Parenthood facilities sold aborted fetal tissue for a profit and that they altered their abortion procedures to extract valuable intact organs.

“This has been a collective effort that has been building for years. The CMP videos were really the true spark that lit this fire,” said Father Stephen Imbarrato, a pastoral staff member at Priests for Life who founded Protest ABQ.

Father Imbarrato, Shaver and others told the Register that pro-life leaders have been investigating the University of New Mexico for several years. During that time, they said university officials stonewalled their public-information requests, even writing to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to complain about their pro-life activities.

Elisa Martinez, executive director of New Mexico Alliance for Life, told the Register that her organization made repeated requests to the university for information regarding the procurement of fetal tissue from the abortion facility. Martinez said she was told the university did not keep those records.


Subpoenaed Documents

However, documents subpoenaed by the congressional committee and later made public include detailed procurement notes. The documents, which were partly redacted, included notations written by a university lab assistant who mentioned an official request for “whole, fixed brains to dissect w/summer camp students.”

An entry from June 7, 2013, rejoiced, “Entire pancreas — whoo hoo!” On June 14, 2012, the lab assistant detailed “stomach broken, no panc [pancreas],” with a hand-drawn frowning-face emoji next to it. In another entry the same day regarding brain tissue, the assistant wrote: “She plated it Monday; they grew wonderfully!”

“The procurement notes are extremely detailed,” said Martinez, adding that that the notes contain information about fetal-tissue weight, age and the types of organs. Martinez said the congressional report indicates the university may have violated open-records laws by telling her that it did not have such information.

Shaver — who early on in her work obtained a consent form from the Albuquerque abortion business that mentioned the possibility of fetal tissue being used for experimentation — said the university also told her the procurement documents did not exist when she filed her own public-records requests.

Said Shaver, “I think they lack transparency, and it’s because they have things to hide. If you don’t have anything to hide, you’re going to put it all out there and show just how ethical you are.”

The laboratory notes produced to the congressional panel revealed that a University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center employee had collected aborted infant tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options an average of 39 times a year since 2010. The harvested organs included heads, brains, a heart, lung, eyes, intestines, bone marrow and stomach.


Students for Life of UNM

Jessica Roseman, president of Students for Life of UNM, told the Register that her pro-life group is planning to host informational displays and events on campus, and is also encouraging its members to write letters to the campus newspaper and the Board of Regents concerning the university's "devastating endeavors with the abortion industry."

"I find it not only ironic but tragic that the same university that trains students how to save lives is also showing them how to take lives," said Roseman, who described the congressional report and referral letter as "necessary and overdue."

"The University of New Mexico has more or less slipped under the radar of many individuals over the years in spite of the heroic and tireless efforts of pro-lifers in New Mexico," Roseman said. "The University needs to be exposed for the dealings with the abortion clinics, particularly the late-term abortion clinics, all of which show no regard for life — preborn or otherwise. In terms of anything coming out of this investigation, there will only be success if the Panel refuses to give up and continues to apply pressure. I believe it will come down to who can outlast the other, the University and abortion business certainly will not go down without a fight, so why should we?”

Pro-life UNM alumni are also not pleased. 

Rachel Wasson, 27, who graduated from New Mexico in 2011 with a bachelor's of science degree in mechanical engineering and is a member of UNM Alumni for Life, told the Register that she was "oblivious" to the university's involvement with abortion during her undergraduate studies.

"I had no clue that they teach med students to perform abortions, perform these abortions on campus, and were partnered with SWO (who recently performed a 30-week abortion!) for this training," Wasson said, adding: "To learn all of this after graduating is disappointing and takes away a great deal of pride I had in graduating from UNM.  It makes me wonder how much of my tuition money went to support this activity and what fraction of alumni donation money continues to support it.  I believe a lot of UNM students and alumni are also in the dark about UNM's ties with the abortion industry and the extent to which they are involved."


Change in University Policy

Before 2000, neither the University of New Mexico Hospital nor any of its clinics offered abortions except in rare cases of fetal anomaly or threats to the mother’s life. But according to the panel report, that began to change after a university abortion-policy committee pushed to expand abortion services at the hospital. In 2002, doctors succeeded in introducing medical abortion and later successfully introduced surgical abortions into UNM facilities.

Today, the University of New Mexico Hospital performs surgical abortions for any reason through 25-weeks gestation and will consider abortions after that benchmark on a case-by-case basis for maternal or fetal reasons, according to the congressional report.

Father Imbarrato described New Mexico as the “Wild West of the Abortion Cartel,” noting that people travel there from all over the country, and even outside the United States, for a late-term abortion.

“We see women from all over coming to New Mexico, specifically to Albuquerque,” Shaver added.

Dr. Curtis Boyd, a well-known late-term abortionist, who helped establish the National Abortion Federation, founded and still helps run Southwestern Women’s Options. Drs. Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella, both of whom worked with the late Dr. George Tiller, another late-term abortionist, joined the Albuquerque business in 2010 and perform abortions in all trimesters.

According to the congressional report, doctors at Southwestern Women’s Options have trained UNM School of Medicine fellows and residents on abortion procedures. When scrutiny began to build last year over the university’s relationship with the facility, officials with the university’s Health Sciences Center said they would no longer send medical fellows or residents to Southwestern Women’s Options.


Dissection Discussion

A handful of New Mexico state legislators demanded answers last year over the public university’s abortion-related activities. They wrote a letter to Dr. Paul Roth, the UNM chancellor for health sciences and dean of the UNM School of Medicine, asking if the university participated in the sale or trafficking of fetal tissue. Roth wrote a four-page response defending UNM Health Sciences Center and arguing that the university is committed to transparency and abides by all federal and state laws, as well as medical ethical standards.

“We maintain a higher ethical and compliance standard for our research than is required by the federal government through our accreditation with the American Association of Human Research Participation,” Roth wrote.

Following a UNM meeting in August, a member of New Mexico Alliance for Life questioned Roth about fetal remains used for the summer-research program. The member recorded the exchange, in which Roth replied, “Yes, we had a faculty member who obtained some tissue, and during one of these summer workshops, uh, dissected, I think, one or two fetal brains.”

Roth refused to answer any other questions.

The congressional panel’s report alleges the transfer of fetal tissue from the abortion facility to the university for scientific research violates New Mexico’s Jonathan Spradling Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. The panel says the law prohibits donations of fetal remains caused by abortion. A university spokesman told the Albuquerque Journal that the congressional panel incorrectly interpreted the statute and argued that the university complies with all state and federal laws and has never paid for fetal tissue.


Waiting for Political Action

Pro-life leaders want the state attorney general’s office to take the allegations seriously, but are frustrated that nothing has been forthcoming. Shaver said she filed a criminal complaint with the attorney general last summer, but has never received an update as to whether her complaint is being investigated.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Shaver, who added that the attorney general’s inaction is consistent in a state where the political establishment has allowed the abortion industry to take root with very little regulation or oversight.

Pro-life leaders in New Mexico accuse Republicans, including Gov. Susana Martinez, of being silent and passive on the issue.

“Ultimately, it’s in God’s hands,” Shaver said. “Despite the corruption and apathy in our state, we’re very appreciative for the select panel for taking an interest in what’s happening here. Unfortunately, most of our leaders and lawmakers really don’t care.”


Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.