Revelations about the University of Pittsburgh’s fetal tissue research exploded onto headlines last fall with physicians going so far as to suggest the institution may have received organs that were extracted from live fetuses. Others speculated that tissue may have come from abortions that violated federal anti-trafficking law, as well as other ethical standards.
In the controversy’s wake, Republican state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, a Pitt alum who sits on the university’s board of trustees, announced a purportedly “independent” investigation into the university’s fetal tissue research, stating that “it is vital that these questions are answered surrounding this.” In doing so, she lent a pro-life face to an investigation that received an array of criticism over its efficacy and independence.
Investigation Ignored UPMC from the Beginning
It’s unclear, however, why Mihalek supported this investigation, as her eventual reaction to its scope was highly critical, indicating much more work needed to be done.
“Strict compliance with the law may give comfort to some,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but it does not satisfy those who, like myself, are concerned that the university is engaging in this practice to any degree.”
Prior reporting had already noted that Pitt’s law firm likely wouldn’t even probe the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), which supplies Pitt’s human tissue bank. “[W]e did not review the clinical decision-making or delivery of medical care, such as abortion, by individuals serving in their capacity as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) employees,” the law firm Hyman, Phelps, and McNamara (HPM) said in its report.
“UPMC is a private, nonprofit corporation that operates hospitals and employs physicians, residents and fellows … Pitt has no role in managing or supervising the provision of medical services by UPMC personnel; therefore, our review did not include the activities conducted by individuals acting in their capacity as a UPMC employee.”
The contrast between Mihalek’s initial announcement and her comments to the Post-Gazette raises obvious questions about what she knew about the investigation and when. Was Mihalek aware that Hyman, Phelps, and McNamara wouldn’t investigate UPMC? If so, why did she support the investigation in the first place?
Pitt’s Sadistic Experiments on Babies
The most troubling allegations were about the abortion procedures, in which Pitt said it wasn’t involved. That’s despite their grant application boasting an ability to minimize the ischemic time (the time tissue retains body temperature after cutting off blood flow), and indicating they could obtain tissue from induction abortions. Those claims and a corresponding statement from the university prompted several physicians to speculate about live organ extraction. Nearly 100 members of Congress also sent the Biden administration a letter over trafficking concerns.
Pitt has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and the law firm’s report stated the university complied with relevant laws. But that wasn’t good enough for Mihalek, who told the Gazette that a probe “cannot and should not merely be a test of whether or not the university complied with the state and federal requirements.”
Do these comments mean that she will use her influence on the board of trustees to call for an additional investigation? It’s difficult to tell. A month after news surfaced about the report, Mihalek appears to be missing in action. Her website and social media don’t appear to have any public statements calling for either an investigation into UPMC or a more rigorous review of Pitt’s practices. Her office did not respond to a Monday inquiry either.
GOPers Call for Further Probing
Meanwhile, U.S. representatives like Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House Pro-Life Caucus, have likened the investigation to a “whitewash.” Cheryl Allen, a former Pennsylvania Superior Court judge, penned an op-ed saying the investigation was inadequate. But outside of a handful of prominent figures like these, public criticism at the state level has been relatively sparse. Mihalek’s silence, in particular, is deafening.
Other state legislators were active in scrutinizing Pitt last year in relation to research involving fetal scalps grafted onto rodents. Republican state Rep. Kathy Rapp has also called on the auditor general to probe funds obtained by the university. Her letter requesting the investigation highlighted that Pitt sought a disproportionately high number of minority fetuses, which the university said stemmed from those populations being most affected by kidney disease.
Mihalek, however, appears to be the primary lawmaker publicly confronting the core of the controversy. She also seems to have neglected former UPMC therapist Ryan Navarro’s concerns that both the university and the law firm encountered apparent conflicts of interest in reviewing fetal tissue research.
For example, Navarro requested the board of trustees choose a different firm as a Pitt alum and HPM attorney, Michael Heesters, was working on the investigation. Heesters was ultimately listed as one of the authors on the final report. Pitt, meanwhile, has balked at the potential conflict from Heesters.
It also dismissed Navarro’s concerns about ties between Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, UPMC, and the university. In a statement to Fox News, Pitt previously said: “[t]o 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.”
Pitt has repeatedly maintained the university is a separate entity from the medical center. Still, questions have been raised about the relationship between the two given that multiple of Pitt’s tissue bank locations are housed within UPMC facilities. Journalist David Daleiden’s undercover work and Pitt’s own statements about its relationships with UPMC and PPWP have also raised concerns.
Will Mihalek Join the Scrutiny Now?
Will any of these relationships receive further scrutiny? Does Mihalek think they should? The state’s Democrat administration apparently doesn’t think UPMC and Pitt deserve added scrutiny. After last fall’s reporting, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro tweeted “abortion is healthcare.” In November, Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of Human Services touted its relationship with UPMC in maternal health services.
When local media is relatively complacent and the university evades adequate investigation, who – other than pro-life legislators – will demand answers? At the federal level, the Health and Human Services Department has effectively ignored lawmakers’ requests for documents related to Pitt’s research, including information on abortions that HPM apparently avoided in its inquiry.
In announcing the investigation, Mihalek arguably made herself the most important Republican politician responding to the issue. This likely wasn’t an accident, as she’s also a trustee and could help paint a picture of bipartisanship that would benefit both her and the university. Presenting yourself as a warrior against scandal may have its benefits, but it also carries responsibilities that Mihalek seems to be neglecting.