GOP lawmaker to propose fetal tissue penalties in Georgia

A top House Republican wants to strengthen criminal penalties for the sale or purchase of aborted fetal tissue, and to clarify that state law allows women to donate tissue for medical research.

Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his bill, which he will introduce when lawmakers return in January, is a direct result of a recent controversy involving Planned Parenthood.

Willard’s proposal at first glance appears to be an incremental change — one section of state law already says fetal tissue from abortions may only be cremated or buried. Plus, it is illegal under federal law to sell or purchase any kind of human tissue. Current state law, Willard said, implies that fetal tissue may be sold in Georgia if it’s to be used in “health sciences education.”

“This makes the sale of body parts a felony,” Willard said. “You had the ability to ‘sell it’ for those research and education purposes. This now changes that. You cannot get any kind of compensation even for the use of it in education and the research purposes. You can still (donate it), you just can’t get compensation.”

But Willard is also making it clear that state law allows for the donation of fetal tissue to hospitals, colleges, universities and research facilities. Willard’s bill would erase any potential conflict in the law over what can happen to fetal tissue after an abortion.

The measure comes after the release of a series of covertly filmed videos that Planned Parenthood’s critics say show it profits from the sale of body parts after abortions. The video angered abortion opponents and led Gov. Nathan Deal to order a state investigation into Planned Parenthood in Georgia.

Reports from both the Department of Community Health and the Department of Public Health showed Planned Parenthood complies with state law.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the state’s public health commissioner, said in her report to Deal that “Georgia law requires that licensed abortion clinics (or a medical disposal service provider with whom they have contracted) bury or cremate fetal remains following the termination of a pregnancy. DNA or genetic testing can and does take place in certain cases, such as if a rape has occurred or there was an abnormality in the pregnancy.”

But, after the AJC asked the department about Willard’s bill, a spokeswoman pointed to another section of state law that goes further than Fitzgerald said. The broader section deals with the sale or donation of human tissue in general, while Fitzgerald had focused on state laws dealing specifically with abortion.

Regardless, Willard wants to eliminate the loophole allowing for the sale of fetal tissue for education and make it a felony to do so.

“This is something we need to make sure can’t happen in Georgia,” he said.

Current law calls for a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 for any hospital, clinic or laboratory that does not properly dispose of aborted fetal tissue. Willard’s bill keeps that, but it also says anyone who buys or sells — or tries to buy or sell — fetal tissue would be guilty of a felony punishable by five years in prison.

His proposal more closely mirrors the language in the broader code section that makes it illegal to buy or sell any human tissue.

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Southeast, which has said it does not participate in tissue donation programs, said the organization is studying Willard’s proposal.

“We are still examining the code to determine what the revisions would mean,” Catherine Smith said.

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