Justice Dept. is investigating the use of fetal tissue

What does Planned Parenthood do?
What does Planned Parenthood do?

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Story highlights

  • The use of human fetal tissue has been a political flashpoint since the 1990s
  • Grassley's 2016 report claimed US agencies had failed to monitor the industry

(CNN)The Justice Department is looking into Planned Parenthood's practices related to human fetal tissue, according to a letter obtained by CNN on Thursday.

The letter -- from the Justice Department's head of its Office of Legislative Affairs -- does not mention Planned Parenthood by name but asks the Senate Judiciary Committee to turn over unredacted documentation supporting a December 2016 report titled "Human Fetal Tissue Research," which purports to describe the organization's practices.
"At this point, the records are intended for investigative use only," Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote. "We understand that a resolution from the Senate may be required if the Department were to use any of the unredacted materials in a formal legal proceeding, such as a grand jury."
    "Yesterday evening the committee received the Justice Department's request and we're going to work to comply with that request," Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, confirmed to CNN on Friday.
    The use of human fetal tissue -- which is used to study a number of diseases -- has proved to be a political flashpoint for decades.
    Federal law prohibits the receipt of any "valuable consideration" for fetal tissue, while permitting "reasonable payments" for costs, including "transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control or storage of human fetal tissue."
    Grassley's 2016 report claimed that executive branch agencies had failed to monitor the industry and -- after reviewing 20,000 documents voluntarily submitted by Planned Parenthood and a number of other organizations -- called on the Justice Department to investigate.
    "The report documents the failure of the Department of Justice, across multiple administrations, to enforce the law that bans the buying and selling of human fetal tissue," the Iowa Republican wrote. "It also documents substantial evidence suggesting that the specific entities involved in the recent controversy, and/or individuals employed by those entities, may have violated that law."
    Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said multiple committees have found Planned Parenthood did nothing wrong, however.
    "The Justice Department's letter is in response to Chairman Grassley's requests that the department review a December 2016 majority staff report, a document that was never brought before the full committee," Feinstein said in a statement to CNN on Friday.
    "Multiple congressional committees, 13 states and a grand jury in Texas all investigated Planned Parenthood, and all of them found the organization did nothing wrong," she added. "I hope that there isn't a partisan purpose in taking this action and that the department handles the chairman's request in a professional and ethical manner."
    Last month, in response to reports that the FBI had asked the Senate for documents it obtained from abortion providers, Planned Parenthood's vice president of government affairs, Dana Singiser, said: "Planned Parenthood strongly disagrees with the recommendations of the Senate Republican staff to refer this matter to the Justice Department, especially in light of the fact that investigations by three other Congressional committees, and investigations in 13 states including a Grand Jury in Texas, have all shown that Planned Parenthood did nothing wrong."
    Singiser added: "Planned Parenthood has never, and would never, profit while facilitating its patients' choice to donate fetal tissue for use in important medical research."
    CNN is told that Grassley said in order to turn over the documentation he needed to receive a letter from DOJ explaining that the materials underlying his report would be used for investigative purposes, according a source with knowledge of the discussions.
    The Justice Department declined to comment.