ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center is investigating the transfer of fetal tissue by a faculty member to a private medical research company in Michigan.

Health Sciences Center spokeswoman Alex Sanchez confirmed the internal investigation Friday after it was first reported by the Albuquerque Journal. She said the inquiry began in the fall but she declined to provide any details.

“While we always strive to be transparent, and believe research must be conducted according to the highest ethical and legal standards, we cannot compromise the integrity of the investigative process by releasing details at this time,” she said in a statement.

According to documents obtained by the newspaper, officials suspended Robin Ohls’ research duties and barred her from her lab in October after learning she had acquired fetal tissue for months from the Southwestern Women’s Options abortion clinic and transferred it to Zietchick Research Institute LLC.

Health Sciences Center staff discovered the practice after Ohls asked if the company could reimburse the university to help cover the costs of a lab assistant who had spent time preparing samples for transport.

An internal memo indicates Health Sciences Center staff had concerns that the issue being raised would potentially infringe on the university’s policy to not buy or sell human tissue. There were also concerns that approvals and protocols had not been followed.

Ohls on Friday referred questions about the matter to the Health Sciences Center.

News of the internal investigation comes a day after the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office announced that civil and criminal inquiries uncovered insufficient evidence that any state laws were broken by the transfer of fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options to the university.

The Albuquerque clinic, one of the nation’s few providers of late-term abortions, has in the past provided the Health Sciences Center with tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research.

The clinic and university officials have repeatedly said the transfers are legal, but anti-abortion advocates and others have complained that women electing to receive abortions at Southwestern Women’s Options did not have enough information to consent to the procedure.

The university was among the research entities investigated by a special U.S. congressional committee that was created in 2015 to look into the practices of Planned Parenthood and the world of fetal tissue research. The Republican-led committee forwarded its findings to the state attorney general’s office in 2016.

At issue in New Mexico were statutes that cover anatomical donations and clinical research activities involving fetuses. State law prohibits the purchase or sale of human organs or tissue for “valuable consideration.”

The attorney general’s office found the tissue transferred from the clinic was used for research and education.

Clinic spokeswoman Heather Brewer said when a woman decides to have an abortion, she may also decide to donate fetal tissue for research.

“Southwestern Women’s Options has worked, in compliance with all rules and regulations, with the University of New Mexico to facilitate such tissue donations for life-saving medical research,” she said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, on Thursday alleged there were violations, pointing to a pending case against the clinic in state district court that focuses on consent. He also noted that the U.S. Justice Department is looking into the issue.


Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com