A California court has issued a temporary restraining order against the Center for Medical Progress, a radical anti-abortion group that has been targeting Planned Parenthood in an ongoing smear campaign.
The ruling comes in response to a request by StemExpress, a California-based company that provides tissue donations to researchers. According to court filings submitted by StemExpress, the Center for Medical Progress illegally recorded three of their employees during a meeting at a restaurant in El Dorado Hills on May 22.
The restraining order, which was handed down late Wednesday night by the Los Angeles Superior Court, prohibits the Center for Medical Progress from releasing the covertly-recorded video, according to the Associated Press.
The legal battle began July 14 when the Center for Medical Progress released the first in a series of deceptively-edited video clips that the anti-choice group claimed were “proof” of “Planned Parenthood’s illegal trafficking of aborted fetal parts.” Those claims were thoroughly disproven just days later upon release of the full, unedited video, which clearly showed that the discussion was about the legal donation of fetal tissue.
Despite being almost immediately debunked by reporters and fact-checkers, the videos — some of which mention StemExpress and/or include covertly-recorded footage of company officials — were quickly picked up by right-wing media and used as an excuse to attack Planned Parenthood and anyone associated with them.
When StemExpress caught wind of what was going on and realized that the May 22 meeting in El Dorado Hills had been part of a smear campaign, the company sought the restraining order on the grounds that the anti-choice group violated California’s anti-wiretapping law by secretly recording the meeting.
“Defendants are anti-abortion advocates,” StemExpress’s court complaint states. “In furtherance of their cause, Defendants have engaged in a public campaign against Planned Parenthood. In the course of this campaign, Defendants have committed numerous illegal acts against StemExpress and its employees.”
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell sided with StemExpress, granting a temporary order to block the Center for Medical Progress from releasing any further video from the May 22 meeting. She also set an August 19 hearing to discuss a StemExpress request for a preliminary injunction until the matters are sorted out in court — and authorized expedited fact-finding on the issue (though really, the facts aren’t hiding at all; they’re clear for all to see, but anti-abortion activists and right-wing media have chosen to ignore them).
Fetal tissue research has ‘revolutionized the prevention and treatment of disease’
StemExpress was founded in 2010 as a company that provides human tissue, blood and other specimens to researchers. Planned Parenthood the company’s providers of fetal tissue, though as the AP reports, there are fewer than five states where Planned Parenthood-affiliated clinics participate in fetal tissue donation programs. In a statement issued last week in response to the release of the first video, StemExpress warned that the attack on Planned Parenthood could be a detriment to the field of scientific research.
Though it might be an unpleasant topic to talk about — as are many medical and surgical procedures — fetal tissue donation has unquestionably benefited humanity through its prominent role in many major scientific breakthroughs. For example, scientists used cultures from fetal kidney cells when they won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1954 for developing the polio vaccine. That alone is estimated to save 550,000 lives worldwide every year.
The three types of cells cultured in that original experiment “have revolutionized the prevention and treatment of human disease,” says Dr. Stephen A. Duncan, professor of Human and Molecular Genetics, and vice chairman of Cell Biology, Neurobiology & Anatomy and director of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Program in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology.
As Dr. Duncan points out, the three cell lines derived from that groundbreaking study — known as HEK293, WI-38 and MRC-5 — were also used in the development of the immunizations that protect against rubella, mumps, measles, chicken pox, rabies and hepatitis. Experiments using HEK293 cells facilitated major advances such as the synthesis of human proteins to create lifesaving treatments like insulin and blood clotting/thinning medications, and MRC-5 cells are still routinely used worldwide in clinical practice for viral cultures.
Fetal tissue research also played a key role in establishing our current understanding of congenital abnormalities such as Down’s Syndrome, spontaneous miscarriage, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and retinitis pigmentosa (a disease that can lead to blindness), while ongoing research is using fetal tissue to tackle devastating diseases like AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and another degenerative disease called Huntington’s.
“Without these cells and their derivatives, our understanding of and our ability to treat human disease would be at best rudimentary,” Dr. Duncan says, noting that the therapeutic value of these cells is “incalculable.”
Scientists are working on the development of new cell models that have the potential to offer a substitute for fetal tissue in many areas of research, and may one day allow researchers to entirely stop collecting new fetal tissue. Already, advances in how scientists work with fetal tissue have allowed them to grow fetal cells indefinitely in Petri dishes, thus not requiring samples from any newly aborted fetuses. Advances in stem cell therapy, too, could help phase out the practice of collecting cells from fetal tissue. Many researchers can now make stem cells by reprogramming skin cells from an adult into a “blank check” stem cell state. These so-called induced pluripotent stem cells can then go on to develop into neurons or any other cell in the body that researchers can grow in labs and study to better understand diseases and potential cures.
However, this research is still in the early stages and there are certain limitations; for example, adult stem cells have not been shown to be capable of developing into all of the different cell and tissue types of the body. Further studies will be needed to determine if alternative models will be viable replacements for the use of fetal tissue as a source of cells. In the meantime, though, we can’t afford to stop work on these lifesaving experiments while alternative methods are not yet up to par.
“The study of fetal tissue has already led to major discoveries in human health,” Dr. Samuel M. Cohen, Chairman of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, testified before Congress in 2009. “Obtaining cells from legally obtained abortions for potentially lifesaving purposes is ethically permissible and indeed ethically necessary.”